For most Americans, the 2020 election season ended on November 3rd, but not for voters in Georgia.
With two Senate run-off elections on January 5th, the outcomes of which will decide control of the U.S. Senate, political advertisers are pouring millions of dollars into the state. And since Facebook and Google still have a post-election political ad ban in place, there aren't many options for online advertisers other than video streaming platforms like Hulu. But Hulu, unlike Facebook and Google, does not offer up any kind of ad transparency tools or libraries for voters or researchers.
FEC filings show that Hulu has been one of the biggest recipients of political ad money, but unlike its cable and broadcast counterparts, Hulu is not required to disclose any information about those ads. In other words: We know Georgia voters are seeing all kinds of political ads on Hulu but there's zero transparency about what they are being shown. We need to change that.
Only 5% of Americans understand there are different rules for political ads that run on streaming TV versus cable TV, and so the vast majority of Georgia voters don't know that the ads they're seeing on Hulu are likely microtargeted to them, and that Hulu doesn't have to disclose who's backing the ads.
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 vendors is that you can get around the political ad transparency rules or bans on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Instagram."
What's more, our research suggests that streaming platforms are notoriously opaque about advertising spending. Unless advertisers themselves disclose their spending — and many of them are dark money groups that refuse to — researchers and watchdogs can only guess about ad spend.
It's clear that advertisers are taking advantage of these legal loopholes and policy blind-spots on streaming platforms. As one of the most popular streaming platforms, Hulu needs to step up — and quickly.
We know that it takes time and resources to get a full ad library – one that is easy to use and accessible to researchers – off the ground, but we’re asking Hulu to release a minimally viable product as soon as feasible so that the information about political ads in Georgia is available during the run-up to Election Day.
Since we published our research, both Roku and Comcast have released their own basic interim transparency documents – which makes Hulu’s decision not to disclose any ad data at all more worrying. That’s why we’re calling on Hulu to release an ad archive as soon as possible that provides the following information: who paid for the ad, how much was spent, how it was targeted to viewer audiences, and a link to the video.
In 2021, we will continue to push platforms to release more accessible, comprehensive ad libraries that allow for large scale analysis, but for now it’s crucial that Hulu take immediate steps to release an ad library while the Georgia election is ongoing.