Paid Programming: Investigating streaming ads during the election season

Paid Programming: Investigating streaming ads during the election season

About the research

illustration showing ads, tv, play button, a ballot box and an American flag

Streaming services

Why streaming services and connected TVs?

Video streaming services and smart TV devices are collecting lots of data about viewers. In Mozilla’s 2019 *Privacy Not Included Guide, we identified Roku as one of the worst offenders in terms of user privacy.

At the same time, streaming platforms like Hulu have become prime targets for political advertising campaigns. Spending has hit an all-time high amid the 2020 U.S. elections, with an estimated $7 billion dollars being spent on political ads for television, social media, and other digital platforms.

As people shift from watching traditional broadcast TV to streaming shows, this presents a huge challenge to election watchdogs investigating political campaign spending and ad targeting. Many streaming platforms have not released information about political ads to the public, nor have they implemented strong policies.

In the past, we’ve urged online platforms to take ad transparency seriously, especially when it comes to political advertising. We even developed a set of strong guidelines for what ad transparency should look like for platforms like Facebook and Google, based on conversations we had with researchers and watchdogs. Without any ad transparency from streaming platforms, it’s impossible to identify issues in real time and at scale.

What's different about the 2020 U.S. elections?

Research from Nielsen suggests that viewers are increasingly making the switch to video streaming platforms during the global pandemic. Further research shows that the economic downturn is causing people to cut costs by switching from subscription-based platforms like Netflix to free, ad-supported platforms like Tubi.

A 2020 survey shows that people tend to trust TV ads over digital ads, which could lend greater credibility to political candidates and their messages. Further, these platforms tend to have access to massive amounts of data on users, offer advertisers complex ad targeting tools, and integrate third party data from data broker firms.

What's more, because of the physical limitations in place during the pandemic, political campaigns are reallocating the money they would have spent on in-person events and canvassing and spending a lot more money on digital ads.

All of these factors set the stage for the high impact – and potential risks – of political advertising on streaming platforms during the 2020 U.S. election season.

Our methodology

For each platform we evaluated, we developed a set of criteria looking at:

  1. Policies around political ads
  2. Ad transparency tools
  3. Ad targeting capabilities
  4. Potential for abuse
  5. User control of ads

In each of these five categories, we formulated a set of questions aimed at better understanding what steps each platform has taken towards greater ad transparency and accountability. Does it fact-check or otherwise vet political ads? Does it have a public ad transparency library that includes all ads, not just political ads? How precise can political advertisers get when they target users?

To do our research, we analyzed public information put out by the platform and their parent companies, their vendors, and other ad network partners they work with. We looked at news stories and reports. We also talked to media buyers and the companies themselves to get a better handle on how their policies work in practice.

Based on that information and an analysis by our researchers of possible areas of concern, we produced letter grades for each of the five categories. These scores represent how each platform is performing against our set of criteria.

More information

This research was undertaken by Mozilla Foundation as part of its work on ad transparency and misinformation ahead of elections.

Contact us: [email protected]