Do political ads have a place on streaming? Hulu says yes but with edits

CHINA - 2021/04/02: In this photo illustration the American global on-demand Internet streaming media provider Hulu logo is seen on an Android mobile device with United States of America (USA), commonly known as the United States (U.S. or US), flag in the background. (Photo Illustration by Budrul Chukrut/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
CHINA - 2021/04/02: In this photo illustration the American global on-demand Internet streaming media provider Hulu logo is seen on an Android mobile device with United States of America (USA), commonly known as the United States (U.S. or US), flag in the background. (Photo Illustration by Budrul Chukrut/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images) /

Update: July 27, 2022

As reported by Deadline, Hulu will now accept political issue ads on their platform. The statement released by The Walt Disney Co. is below:

"After a thorough review of ad policies across its linear networks and streaming platforms over the last few months, Disney is now aligning Hulu’s political advertising policies to be consistent with the Company’s general entertainment and sports cable networks and ESPN+. Hulu will now accept candidate and issue advertisements covering a wide spectrum of policy positions, but reserves the right to request edits or alternative creative, in alignment with industry standards."

Continue reading for previously reported information on the push for this change to be made after political issue ads were rejected by the platform due to an unwritten policy banning ads with sensitive topics.

Streaming seems to be the last refuge for TV lovers trying to escape ads. There’s no such thing as an ad-less tier on broadcast. But, with ads becoming more pervasive on streamers in order for these platforms to recoup money and get more subscribers in the door with cheaper ad-tier plans, that refuge is shrinking at least for those who can’t afford to shell out upwards of $15.99 or more for premium access.

As such we’re being inundated with commercials that ask us to buy the latest products or tune into these upcoming shows. And, for some subscribers that isn’t an issue. They’re willing to sit through ads to watch whatever they want on the platform they’re paying for or have free access to. However, commercial ads aren’t the only game in town. There’s also political ads to consider.

During campaign season, political ads litter broadcast channels. Their goal is to inform America’s voting base about who is on the ticket in their area, the party they’re aligned with, as well as provide a bite-sized information dump about a candidate’s campaign platform.

Attack ads play into this, too, with organizations purchasing ad time to inform the public about a candidate or political party’s negative impact on politics, democracy, and the country as a whole. As more platforms introduce ad tiers, the conversation about political ads on streaming will be pushed further and further into the spotlight.

Hulu is dealing with this now as Democrats protest the streamer’s stringent and yet somehow vague guidelines for a political ad to be accepted on the platform.

Political ads on Hulu must clear their unwritten controversy policy

According to reporting by The Washington Post, there is an unwritten policy at Hulu that requires ads to steer away from sensitive and controversial subject matter. The news outlet cites a Jezebel piece that centered on Suraj Patel, a Democratic candidate for Congress in New York City whose 30 second campaign ad was initially rejected by Hulu.

Why was the ad rejected? It addressed topics of abortion, climate change, gun violence, and the January 6 attack on the Capitol. These hot button issues, which rightfully are dominating the conversation in politics, were reportedly too sensitive for the platform according to a Hulu rep that made Patel’s team aware of why the ads weren’t run, this was not done in writing.

Patel penned a letter of protest to Disney CEO Bob Chapek and Hulu President Joe Earley about the policy relayed to his team and its impact on today’s politics as well as the younger voting base who are more easily reached on streaming not broadcast.

With edits, Patel’s ad was allowed to run on Hulu notably with “climate change” being swapped out for “democracy” and footage of former president Donald Trump in place of the insurrection. Hulu later went back on their policy and accepted Patel’s original ad including the violence from the Capitol.

This decision was reportedly made prior to the publishing of The Washington Post article which ran on Monday, July 25 though Patel’s team wasn’t informed of the change until that afternoon. Also, an anonymous source familiar with Hulu’s policy had the following to say to the news outlet according to the reporting:

"This person said that the company does not publicly disclose its advertising guidelines but that they prohibit advertising that takes a position on a controversial issue, regardless of whether it is a political ad. The ads are reviewed on a case-by-case basis, with edits sometimes recommended to the advertisers.In recent months, the company has reevaluated its policy implementation to give candidates greater flexibility to explain their positions, the person said.“We do accept candidate ads that reference those topics,” this person said about abortion and gun violence. “It needs to be in context.”"

But one does have to wonder what “in context” means in regards to Hulu’s policy. In context of what? It’s no secret that we’re living in very polarizing times. America’s democracy feels as if it’s hanging by a thread and that’s a position that both sides of the aisle hold.

The reporting around what’s being called a censorship issue at Hulu, to my knowledge, hasn’t included the way the streamer handles political ads for Republicans or Independents. While this could be a problem that’s specific to Democrats whose mobilization of the youth has been ahead of the curve online since former president Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, it’s still an issue that needs to be tackled now.

Disney+ has already ruled out political ads on their platform for their coming ad-tire. This is likely do to its branding as a streamer for all ages that skews younger though it does include content targeted toward adults such as the TV-MA Marvel series previously from Netflix and the upcoming additions of the R rated movies, Logan, Deadpool, and Deadpool 2.

Netflix, who will also be debuting an ad-tier, haven’t taken a position on the kinds of ads they’ll be running. But, this is a conversation that’s going to be in the mainstream for awhile. It’s an important one. As Patel pointed out about Hulu’s position:

"This policy has incredible implications for people nationwide, both voters and people running for office. You need to communicate with younger voters on the mediums where they are watching. Cable is not where they are watching."

We’re in the streaming age which still very much feels like a new frontier at times. As such the policies being enacted, in regards to the political ads being run on streaming platforms, need to leave room for candidates and parties to talk about the issues of the day.

I’m not advocating for no rules. There definitely needs to be guidelines to ensure disinformation isn’t being spread and that false narratives aren’t running rampant. But the idea that a political ad must be tailored to err on the side of caution in order to avoid controversy when the very topics being debated, fought over, and protested about are inherently controversial isn’t a position that sustainable.

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