FEC regulations that publishers should know

03/06 By Amanda Forrester

The business of politics is often perceived as less than modern. But this notion is flipped on its head when it comes to digital campaign advertising and media buying. Political digital strategists, Super PACs, and political associations like the Republican National Committee have successfully leveraged the digital landscape to the advantage of their candidates and causes. From interactive creative on mobile devices to cookie matching against voter-file data — the political sphere has wholeheartedly embraced data, digital, and automated media buying. That said, political campaigns remain highly regulated affairs, subject to the rules of the Federal Election Commission (FEC). With the midterms on the horizon, publishers have an opportunity to soak up political advertising dollars, but they’ll need to master the FEC’s regulatory guidelines if they want to avoid the sting of fines or legal action.

Rules of the road

Like most advertisers, political media buyers and digital campaign strategists have learned that they cannot drive people to the polls if their ads are never seen. As a result, a growing number of political ad buyers are adding pre-bid viewability targeting and fraud protection to their programmatic buys, with the expectation that their direct buys will follow suit.

This presents a challenge for publishers who are used to less regulated commercial advertising campaigns. Until July 2017 publishers relied upon over delivery of impressions to ensure that they reliably hit a viewability goal and/or IVT requirement. For example, if a commercial brand advertiser cuts an IO for 250,000 impressions between October 20th and October 28th, the publisher might deliver 350,000 impressions to ensure that they had 250,000 viewable impressions. The additional 100,000 impressions would simply be considered “added value” thrown in to offset any non-viewable impressions served.

Unfortunately, this isn’t an option in election advertising. Under FEC rules any “added value” could be considered an in-kind contribution to the campaign. The FEC stets strict guidelines which govern how much money individuals and organizations (including publishers) can spend or give to political campaigns. Any added value, even if it was added solely to hit a viewability target, would have to be reported as a donation by both the campaign and the donor publication.  

Under FEC rules in-kind donations include goods such as office supplies and equipment as well as services that would be beneficial to the campaign such as printing. The FEC’s definition of in-kind contributions specifically calls out advertising as a potentially donatable service. Such services are “are valued at the prevailing commercial rate at the time the services are rendered.” Meaning that both the campaign and the publisher would need to report the market value of that extra 100,000 impressions as a donation and such donations have strict monetary limits that most campaigns would quickly exceed in this scenario. This is why it’s important for them to lean on publisher optimization tools that leverage automation to successfully and precisely deliver campaigns without over delivering.

Winning the race

Campaign finance rules put publishers and political advertisers on a level playing field. While many political firms and consultants will be clear about their requirements, publishers have their own responsibilities so it behooves everyone to know the rules. Here are a few simple things that publishers and political advertisers can do to ensure a regulatory win in 2018 and beyond.


  1. Work with direct publishers who leverage a publisher optimization tool that integrates directly with their ad server and accounts for viewability, ad fraud, and brand safety.
  2. Request PMPs from these publishers that are viewable, brand-safe, and fraud-free.
  3. Buy programmatically and implement pre-bid viewability standards, brand safety protection, and ad fraud prevention. Couple this with first-party or voter-file data.
  4. Apply pre-bid viewability, ad fraud, and brand safety.in-app targeting for grassroots campaigns and GOTV campaigns.
  5. Do not spray and pray! Fraudsters know that you have to use your budget or lose it at on election day so they’ll expect you to be a bit careless.  Forecast out your campaigns to maintain steady buying patterns. During the 2016 election week, IAS observed ad fraud rates 228% higher than the previous week on desktop and 40% higher on mobile.


  1. Organize your website to create a safe and appealing environment for campaign advertising. Do not include politically charged links on non-political content.
  2. Auto-optimize campaign delivery for viewability, ad fraud, and brand safety standards for both direct and programmatic campaigns.
  3. Don’t over-deliver on impressions to hit a quality target or you and the political advertisers you’re working with could end up with a hefty fine.

Following these instructions will ensure the buy and sell sides are able to get through campaign season unscathed. To learn more about how publishers can make the most of election season you can you can download our webinar here, or check out our recent posts about the perils and potential of mixing politics and publishing here and here.