Americans unsure how political ads on streaming TV can target them, what disclosure rules apply

Kaili Lambe

By Kaili Lambe | Nov. 30, 2020 | Advocacy

In September, Mozilla published research into political advertising on six major U.S. streaming platforms. Our biggest takeaway? There is almost no transparency into what kinds of political ads are running and how they’re being targeted.

It turns out political advertisers agree with our findings, but rather than seeing a problem, they see an opportunity. According to Lindsey Kolb, a VP of Digital Strategy at Rational 360, “One of the best parts of running ads through programmatic or OTT [Over-The-Top] vendors is that you can get around the political ad transparency rules or bans on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Instagram.”

If advertisers are taking advantage of these legal loopholes and platform policy blind spots, where does that leave voters?

New research we’re releasing today confirms our hunch that this lack of transparency means a majority of Americans don’t see streaming services or platforms as extension of the internet – one that comes with troubling data collection and ad microtargeting, and virtually no regulation.

Mozilla commissioned this research from YouGov in the final days of the U.S. elections. We sought to better understand how American voters think about the political ads they see on streaming platforms. Specifically, we were interested in whether people think political ad disclosure rules are the same for cable/broadcast TV and streaming platforms, and if voters understand that they can be specifically targeted as streaming TV customers (including data points such as: what shows they watch, their demographics, location, or even other data from third parties).

From this second wave of research, we learned that a majority (55%) of Americans don’t know if traditional political advertising disclosure rules apply to streaming platforms. Furthermore, 57% of Americans don't know if ad targeting rules differ from broadcast/cable to streaming, either.

In simple terms, this means that Americans don't know that the ads they see on streaming shows have different rules than broadcast or cable TV. Voters aren’t given information to determine how they might be targeted by political ads or who is paying for those ads.

A few other key findings:

  • Not only did a majority (55%) of Americans say they don’t know if streaming platforms follow the same disclosure rules as cable or broadcast TV, a net 40% think that streaming platforms follow all, most, or some of the same rules, when in fact no such rules exist for streaming. That means that only 5% of Americans understand that streaming TV is fundamentally different from cable and broadcast TV in what it must disclose about political ads.
  • Specifically, more than one-fifth (21%) think all the same disclosure rules apply, when in fact they don’t.
  • More than one-fifth of Hulu viewers (22%), and even a larger share of Tubi (27%) and CBS All-Access (29%) viewers believe that all the same disclosure rules apply on streaming TV as on cable or broadcast. Mozilla’s research on Streaming TV platforms found that Hulu, Tubi and CBS All-Access fail to provide meaningful ad disclosure.
  • A net 36% think streaming TV platforms follow all, most or some of the same rules about ad targeting as cable or broadcast, when in fact they have much more personalized and data-driven targeting methods.
  • 15% of Tubi viewers think streaming platforms follow ALL of the same rules as broadcast and cable TV for targeting viewers. Tubi received one of our worst marks for ad targeting.

To help shed light on the problem, we also created a satirical “ad” which can be seen below.

In light of the news that both Facebook and Google plan to extend their bans on political ads until mid-December, political campaigns – notably the run-off Senate races in Georgia – will have limited options for political advertising and are increasingly likely to turn to streaming TV services. In fact it appears, some already have.

Given the current political environment – and these findings that suggest voters are unsure what kinds of rules apply to political ads they see on TV – it is urgent that these platforms act swiftly to provide transparency into political advertising. As more and more viewers are turning to streaming TV, it’s crucial that consumers are given the information to understand that streaming TV is more an extension of the internet than it is of television – that their personal data is vacuumed up and used for sophisticated ad targeting when they sit down to watch their favorite shows just as much as when they’re browsing or taking any other action on the web.

All of these factors set the stage for the high impact – and potential risks – of political advertising on streaming platforms. This sector could have a growing influence on personal data collection, election spending and possibly even election outcomes.

See the full findings here.

Methodology
All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2513 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 30th October - 3rd November 2020. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all US adults (aged 18+).