If a television station used similar pricing schemes—charging one candidate more for a message than another because it was more “relevant” or the audience was more distracted on a given day—it would be illegal. The Federal Communications Commission requires TV stations to charge candidates the same price
for ads, the lowest that they charge any advertiser.
Internet ads, however, are not regulated in a similar fashion. As a result, Biden’s higher average price means he has likely paid more than $8 million more for his Facebook ads than he would have if he had been paying Trump’s average price.
Biden, who has a cash advantage over Trump
, can afford to pay a premium. But for other political candidates, a multimillion-dollar price disparity could be devastating. As Ann Ravel, a former commissioner of the Federal Elections Commission, told Jeremy, some candidates “could get an advantage that other candidates wouldn’t get.”
Campaign experts say this type of pricing can incentivize ads that are more controversial—because they can trigger more “engagement.”
Gary Coby, the digital director of the Trump campaign, tweeted
in response to our piece, “… we also have a candidate edge — More ppl want to watch a Trump video.”
Rob Flaherty, Biden’s digital director, attributed the pricing difference to a different strategy, tweeting
that different campaigns “target different audiences for different reasons with different strategies and in so doing pay different prices.”
Republican digital campaign strategist Eric Wilson tweeted
, “Auction-based advertising leads to these discrepancies and incentivizes campaigns to play to the algorithm. Social ads should have a fixed rate amongst candidates just like every other medium.”
Facebook defended its fluctuating ad pricing. “This article reflects a misunderstanding of how digital advertising works. All ads, from all advertisers, compete fairly in the same auction. Ad pricing will vary based on the parameters set by the advertiser, such as their targeting and bid strategy,” Joe Osborne, a Facebook spokesperson, told The Markup in an emailed statement.
But, as Congress considers regulating tech companies
, it’s worth thinking about whether we—the public—want to continue to exempt tech companies from the fairness requirements we have set for political advertising in other media.
Thanks, as always, for reading.