In a typical candidate-sponsored presidential campaign advertisement during 2004, President George W. Bush finished the ad by looking into the camera to pronounce, "I'm George W. Bush, and I approve this message." In other ads, a Bush voiceover was heard while footage of him strolling a White House patio was shown. John Kerry's ads had similar tag lines. In some, the approval message was embedded in the text of the ad itself. In one Kerry campaign ad, Senator Kerry appeared on screen to say, "I'm John Kerry and I approve this message because we can't go it alone in Iraq. We have to share the burden with other countries. We shouldn't be cutting education and closing firehouses in America while we're opening them in Iraq." Down the ballot, candidates for federal office at all levels found ways to approve of campaign advertisements. David Wu, an incumbent Democrat representing Oregon's First Congressional District used one ad to put on a harness and climb to the edge of a bridge as he discussed his view that "privatizing Social Security is about as risky as, well, jumping off a bridge." He ends the ad by saying, "I approve this message, and I do my own stunts," and then leaps off the bridge with a bungee cord attached. In 2004, President Bush, Senator Kerry, Representative Wu, and hundreds of other political candidates for federal office across the country included in their ads remarkably similar tag lines: "I approve this message."
The appearance of political advertisement disclaimers in the 2004 election originated from what was then a new requirement enacted through the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA). BCRA requires candidates, parties, and interest groups involved in campaigns for federal office to include a disclaimer statement with radio and television ads, forcing the sponsor to claim responsibility for the content of the ad. This disclaimer provision, popularly called "Stand by Your Ad" (SBYA), appeared prominently in the deluge of televised advertisements aired during the 2004 campaign.
For candidates, the SBYA disclaimer must include an oral statement spoken by the candidate identifying himself or herself and expressing approval of the advertisement. The Federal Election Commission offered two examples of how this could be done: "I am [insert name of candidate], a candidate for [insert federal office sought], and I approved this advertisement," and "My name is [insert name of candidate]. I am running for [insert federal office sought], and I approved this message." The audio statement, aired at any time during the ad, must be accompanied by either a full-screen view of the candidate making the statement or a "clearly identifiable photographic or similar image of the candidate" occupying at least 80 percent of the vertical screen height. Finally, the advertisement must include a "clearly readable" written disclaimer that appears for at least four seconds, contains a "reasonable degree of color contrast," and occupies at least 4 percent of the vertical screen height (Federal Election Commission 2002). Candidates running ads failing to include an SBYA disclaimer also fail to qualify for the broadcaster's lowest unit charge (Bauer 2004).
Some political consultants expressed dismay about having to use valuable air time to put in the SBYA disclaimer. One consultant we spoke to referred to it as "a total waste, a joke" (Innocenzi 2004), and this response was typical with others calling it "clumsy and awkward," "silly," "a little crazy," and "reform gone amok" (Rutenberg 2003). However, the requirement led to experimentation by consultants. Some placed the disclaimer at the front of the spot, while others kept it at the end. Some embellished the disclaimer with information about the issues, while others kept it plain and simple. Despite complaints from political consultants about using a few seconds of valuable air time, the real question revolves around the disclaimer's effectiveness. …