Clearance Challenges in Issue Advertising

Clearance is a challenge with most issue advertising. Each radio and TV station has different standards for accepting an ad. For hard-edged ads that attack a company for polluting or that mention condoms, for example, expect a 30 to 50 percent turndown rate among TV stations, with little chance of appeal. Network-affiliated stations frequently rely on advice from the network’s Office of Standards and Practices for clearance, which may require scripts or storyboards to be submitted in advance of placement.

Therefore, if your goal is to purchase significant airtime, you will need advance clearance from the networks. Also be prepared to verify any statements, facts or figures you include in the ad.

You may also plan a purposefully controversial campaign, which you know will be turned down by many stations. This strategy is aimed at attaining news coverage about the spot rather than extensive placement of it. The progressive Internet-based advocacy group, MoveOn.org produced such a spot and attempted to buy time during CBS’s 2004 Super Bowl football game. The ad, entitled, “Child’s Play,” shows children performing menial task to pay off what MoveOn.org claimed to be “President Bush’s $1 trillion deficit.” CBS rejected that ad, but clips of the spot appeared as a news story on several news programs.

You must decide in advance which path to take with a controversial spot. If you want to avoid turndowns, you may have to choose between a message that can “clear” the networks and a message you would like to send. Local radio stations, even network-affiliated stations, are generally more relaxed in their approach to issue advertising.

Because radio can be more easily targeted, issue advertising through radio is also an excellent way to reach key constituencies. A good issue-advertising media plan will have significant radio placements built into the budget, either to reach selected audiences or to use if TV is unavailable. Often, issue advertising has an “action” associated with the spot, such as a toll-free number a website address or an email for people to send in responses. It is good to remember that TV elicits a much better response than radio. Here again, when you make placement considerations, you must weigh radio’s easier clearance against the higher response levels and higher viewership that TV offers.