FEC Rules Paid-Search Political Ads Partially Exempt From Disclosure

Handing Google a partial victory, the Federal Elections Commission said that political candidates can, in some circumstances, run pay-per-click ads without including disclaimers in the copy.

But the FEC didn't completely grant Google's request, which was for a ruling that search ads are exempt from any disclosure rules the same as bumper stickers, pens or other small items.

In an opinion issued on Thursday, the FEC said it couldn't agree on whether to completely exempt search ads from disclosure rules, but that pay-per-click ad copy need not include all required information "where the text ad displays the URL of the committee sponsor's website ... and the landing page contains a full disclaimer."

FEC regulations typically require that political ads include information about who paid for the ad and whether it is authorized by the candidate. But those rules don't apply when the ads are on items too small for the disclaimers.

Google in August asked the FEC to rule that search ads are exempt from disclaimer rules because of the ad copy's 95-character limit. "As a result of this severe space limitation, a text ad is fundamentally different from a television or newspaper advertisement," Google wrote in its request. "Both Google and the advertiser view the landing page as the primary forum in which advertiser-to-customer communications take place."



The FEC's decision regarding search ads stands in contrast to actions by another federal agency, the Food and Drug Administration, which last year rebuked 14 pharmaceutical companies that had advertised on search engines.

The FDA warned that the pay-per-click ads were misleading because the ad copy touted the benefits of drugs without also informing consumers about risks and contraindications. Critics of that move said that the character limits make it virtually impossible to convey in a search ad that a particular drug is a potential treatment while also alerting users to its drawbacks.

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