Commercial advertiser disclosure
Washington state law allows any member of the public to request information about a political advertisement from the company that provided the advertising. These companies are referred to as “commercial advertisers” in the law.
This disclosure, which dates back 50 years to Initiative 276 which created the PDC, is an important counterpart to the reporting done by campaigns and sponsors of independent expenditures. It also provides critical information when sponsors of political advertising fail to identify themselves.
A commercial advertiser is defined as any person or entity that sells a service communicating messages or producing material for distribution to the public, when the message includes an appeal for votes or financial support in an election campaign.
Examples include, but are not limited to, print shops, copying center businesses, direct mail services, billboard companies, broadcasters, print or online publications and online digital platforms.
Public inspection of commercial advertiser records
Commercial advertisers who accept or provide political advertising or electioneering communications must maintain certain records including information about the advertising they sell. These records, called “books of account”, must be open to public inspection during normal business hours during the campaign and for at least five years after the election.
How to get information
Commercial advertisers can make the required records available:
- In person during normal business hours; or
- Electronically, in machine readable format, and structured in a way that enables the data to be fully discoverable and useable by the end user.
If a commercial advertiser chooses to provide the information electronically, it can meet its obligations in a couple of ways:
- By digital transmission, such as email, no later than two business days after the request;
- Or, by online publication on the advertiser’s primary website or a website controlled by the advertiser, created for purposes of publishing the required information. A link should be prominently displayed on the advertiser's primary website directing users to the website where information is posted.
A commercial advertiser may have up to three business days to update its books of account upon receiving notice regarding any missing political advertising or electioneering communication, provided it asked the sponsor of the ad whether it was political advertising or electioneering communication, and the sponsor did not indicate that it was. The ad also must not be reasonably identifiable as political advertising or an electioneering communication for the longer time frame to apply
What information must be available
Documents and books of account open to public inspection must include:
- A copy of the advertisement or electioneering communication and a description of the major work components or tasks required to provide the ad or service. (See specific requirements for different services in drop-down menu below)
- The name of the candidate or ballot measure supported or opposed, or the name of the candidate otherwise identified
- The name and address of the sponsoring person or persons who paid for the advertising or electioneering communication, including the federal employer identification number, or other verifiable identification, if any, of an entity. This is so that the public can know who paid for the advertising or communication, without having to locate and identify any affiliated entities.
- The total cost of the advertising or electioneering communication, or initial cost estimate if the total cost is not available upon initial distribution or broadcast. Include how much of that amount has been paid, as updated, who made the payment, when it was paid, and what method of payment was used.
- Date(s) the commercial advertiser rendered service, including the dates, where applicable, that the advertising or communication was presented to the public.
There is additional information that may be available depending on the type of commercial advertiser:
- Printers, reproducers, commercial duplicating services
Quantity of items, item description, design, layout, typesetting, photography, printing, silkscreening, binding.
- Mailing services
Quantity of items mailed, binding, stuffing, labeling, list or directory services, postage or delivery.
- Broadcast media
Air time and number of spot advertisements. If the broadcaster provides additional services such as copy writing, talent, production, and tape reproduction, some type of record or notation evidencing the additional service must be available.
- Billboard or sign companies
Number and location of signs, design, printing and art work, erection/removal costs.
- Specialty or novelty commercial advertisers
Quantity of items provided, silk screening, design, printing and art work.
- Newspapers and other print media
Amount of advertising space and dates of publication. If the advertiser provides additional services such as design or layout, some type of record evidencing such additional services must be available.
- Digital communication platforms
A description of the demographic information, the statistical characteristics of a population (e.g., age, gender, race, location, etc.), of the audiences targeted and reached, to the extent such information is collected by the commercial advertiser as part of its regular course of business, and the total number of impressions generated by the advertisement or communication.
Information must be updated within 24 hours of initial public distribution of the advertisement or communication, and within 24 hours of any update or change.
Records must be maintained for at least five years after the applicable election. At the request of the PDC, each commercial advertiser must provide copies of the required information to the PDC.
Providing access to commercial advertiser records becomes more complicated when the advertiser selling the service to the campaign does not control, for example, the website on which it appears.
The hosting-only commercial advertiser is not required to maintain records on such advertising or communications. However, the commercial advertiser that directly sells the services must maintain the information.
What’s more, that advertiser selling the service must include a separate text box or link that automatically appears with the advertisement or communication that directs the reader to at least one method for obtaining the required information. Such methods may include, but are not limited to, an address or location for receiving in-person inquiries, a link to a portal for processing requests, or a link to a website where the required information is maintained.