Disclose Act requirements might end 30-second campaign advertisements

The 30-second campaign ad could become a thing of the past for third-party groups if the Democrats’ campaign finance legislation becomes law.

Media strategists argue the new disclosure requirements would eat into the majority of their ad time.

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“It’s tough enough to fit the ‘I approved this ad’ disclaimer,” said Democratic media strategist Tad Devine. “That already eats into the ability to communicate effectively.”

All political candidates are required to have a tagline in their spots stating they approve the message. That takes up about five seconds of airtime. But, if the Disclose Act becomes law, corporate interests and unions would have to include a “paid for by” disclaimer both from the head of the organization sponsoring the ad and from a number of that group’s top funders.

“We estimate it would suck up at least half of a 30-second ad,” said Bruce Josten, executive vice president of government affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber opposes the legislation and scored the vote in the House, meaning it will take lawmakers’ votes into consideration when deciding whom to endorse.

Under the version of the Disclose Act passed in the House, said Josten, a Chamber ad that falls under its disclosure requirements would need the following: an on-camera nod of approval from Chamber

President Tom Donohue followed by another from the Chamber’s top financial backer, followed by the names of the Chamber’s next three contributors, whose names and titles would have to stay on the screen for at least six seconds.

“This could end up being a full employment program for announcers who can talk fast,” said Republican media consultant Tom Edmonds.

“That makes it very difficult to run an effective commercial,” he said.

He cited prescription drug ads as an example. In 2007, the Food and Drug Administration changed the requirements for those television spots.

Now the majority of prescription drug ads are taken up listing potential side effects and other government-mandated disclaimers, Edmonds said.

Even if all of a group’s financial backers are willing to put their face or name on a political ad, Edmonds noted it would mean additional TV time and additional cost to get the message out.

“People would probably have to run a lot more 60-second ads,” he said. “You just couldn’t say anything in 30 seconds.”

And that could get expensive, especially in the top media markets, where airtime can add up.

Democratic media consultant Bud Jackson said further increasing the length or expanding the content of disclosure within a 30- or 60-second spot will “infringe unfairly upon an ad’s ability to communicate a message.”

“Today we have spots whose disclosures inform viewers virtually nothing about who is really behind the ads,” Jackson said. “So more disclosure isn’t the answer.” Jackson’s an advocate of having an ad direct viewers to a spot online where they could view an in-depth explanation of who’s behind the ad.

Privately, some Democratic strategists agreed that the TV ad disclosure provisions were onerous, but they wouldn’t say so on the record. Others say that is one of the points of the bill: to make a political expenditure by a special-interest group or corporation an unwise investment.

Devine, who said disclaimers are far from an ad-maker’s favorite thing, also noted that, in the end, the provisions of the Disclose Act are probably the only way to “level the playing field” when it comes to special-interest influence.

And no ad-makers like disclosures.

“Political ad-makers hate spending up to 20 percent of an ad on a disclaimer,” noted Democratic media consultant Mark Putnam. “But it’s the only way to shed light on who is behind special-interest advertising.”

The House passed the Disclose Act last week on a narrow 219-206 vote. Thirty-six Democrats, several of them in tough reelection campaigns, opposed the legislation.

And across the board, most party strategists and third-party groups are doubtful the bill has much of a chance in the Senate. The upper chamber has a packed legislative agenda — including tax legislation, a

Supreme Court nomination and energy proposals — and the Disclose Act would have to win Senate passage quickly to have any chance of affecting the 2010 elections.

Plus, the votes may not be there.

Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) and Frank Lautenberg (N.J.) have criticized exemptions inserted into the House language in order to ensure passage in that chamber.

And key Republican swing votes Sens. Scott Brown (Mass.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine) have registered their disapproval.

Were the bill to emerge from the Senate, former Federal Election Commission Chairman Michael Toner said, third-party groups and corporate interests will be well-prepared.

“Election lawyers are highly paid to find good avenues for First Amendment expression,” he said.

The Disclose Act came in response to a Supreme Court decision that overturned spending limits for corporations and unions.

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Democrats want it passed in time to affect the November election. It was written so its disclosure requirements will take effect 30 days after the law is signed. The Disclose Act also was designed to make it as difficult as possible for challengers to have it invalidated in court.

Democrats had said July 4 was their target date for passage, in order to ensure its effect by November, but now some strategists say as long as it’s passed by the August recess, it could still affect this cycle.

Russell Berman contributed to this article.