What is Advocacy Advertising?

Mark Kelly
May 2, 2017

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At face value, it’s not exactly difficult to figure out the basic meaning of advocacy advertising. Just as it sounds, the term applies to marketing for various advocacy campaigns.

What does that practically look like?

If you’ve ever watched television during an election year, you’re deeply familiar with one type of advocacy advertising format: political ads. 

We’ll get to more of the specifics in a moment, but first, let’s dive into the reasoning behind advocacy advertising.

What does advocacy advertising accomplish?

The goal of advocacy advertising is to raise awareness of the cause at hand and persuade certain segments of the public to take specific action.

The most common hope of an advocacy advertisement is to draw attention to the people and/or cause you’re advocating for and gain traction with new supporters who will join in on your actions.

Because there is a massive realm of possibilities that you can advocate for, there’s an equally massive realm of advocacy advertising opportunities.

The most common focal points of advocacy advertisements include issues regarding:

  • Politics
  • Economics
  • Society

There are multiple levels of this kind of advocacy advertising, some with explicit regulations depending on the group at the helm of the ad.

What are common advocacy advertising outlets?

First, let’s separate advocacy advertising from commercial advertising. In commercial advertising, there is a product or service in play. In advocacy advertising, there is an interest, cause, or issue at the center of the ad. Advocacy advertising takes the persuasiveness of traditional advertising and uses it to the benefit of the cause at hand.

Advocacy advertisements can demonstrate a particular point of view (which can be controversial) about public issues.

This advertising can be led by a variety of organizers, including:

  • Nonprofits
  • Advocacy groups
  • Lobbyists
  • Corporations
  • Interest groups

Traditionally, when you hear the term advertisement, you think television. You picture a commercial during your favorite medical drama on Tuesday nights. 

Although there is certainly plenty of advocacy advertising on television, if we think back to the field’s basic definition — marketing to support a cause — we can expand our view to note that advocacy advertising does not stop with television.

Other types of advocacy advertising in the traditional sense include:

  • Magazines
  • Newspapers
  • Radio

But, with the help of the modern technology and the internet, your organization can be readily equipped to advertise for your cause without sacrificing an arm and a leg in funding. You can:

  • Organize a social media campaign.
  • Promote through email.
  • Feature your advocacy on your website.
  • And more!

In order to be successful in your advocacy advertising, you need to weigh cost and resources against effectiveness. Scale your efforts according to what makes the most sense for your given situation.

Technology and the connectedness of the internet make it possible to accomplish your advocacy aims without a massive budget, so don’t be hesitant to use those advertising avenues that are readily available to you.

What about advocacy advertising regulations?

There are certain regulations placed on particular advocacy advertising efforts, depending on the nature of their work.

The ins and outs of the legalese and tax code regulations on certain advocacy groups and their advertising can quickly get extremely complex. Rather than delving into a dense legal discussion, for the purposes of this guide, let’s just cover two big terms related to the regulation of advocacy advertising. 

  1. Issue Advocacy
  2. Express Advocacy

Both are tied to political advocacy, and more specifically, political advertising. You know, those pesky ads that litter your television every election season.

The terms, issue and express, are the two main categories of political advertising. They come from a landmark Supreme Court decision in 1976, Buckley v. Valeo. The crux of their difference rests with the concept of what is subject to federal campaign regulations.

Let’s define each category on its own.

Issue Advocacy

For issue advocacy, any individual, union, or corporation can contribute without being limited by how much they can contribute. Additionally, they don’t have to report the funding specifics, who gave and how much, publicly. In other words, issue ads do not have to abide by federal election laws.

Issue advocacy, as determined by the court, is implemented to teach the public about issues and is therefore allowed under the First Amendment’s protection of free speech.

Express Advocacy

Simply put, express advocacy is regulated by federal election laws.

Express advocacy directly prescribes that its audience help defeat or elect a candidate for public office. An express ad cannot be funded by corporate or union contributions, and it’s individual donors are only allowed to donate up to certain amount. Plus, any contributors have to be publicly disclosed.

Because express advocacy is determined by an ad’s recommendation regarding a candidate’s election, there are certain trigger terms that almost automatically classify an ad as express. These words, known as the “magic words,” include:

  • Elect
  • Support
  • Vote for
  • Vote Against
  • Reject
  • Defeat

Since the creation of this distinction between express advocacy and issue advocacy, there has been debate about it. Questions surrounding what advertising constitutes what and the legality of towing the line with issue ads that could also be considered express ads have regularly come up.

What about nonprofit advocacy advertising?

Nonprofits don’t face the same regulations because they are tax-exempt and are not supposed to be connected to political campaigns.

For example, imagine your nonprofit is focused on animal welfare. You can run advocacy advertisements to effect change or spur people into action, and you won’t have to follow regulations.

The same would go for various nonprofit causes from the arts to the environment.

When advocacy advertising is brought into the equation, it’s typically associated with television advertisements for politicians. That’s definitely a major aspect of this marketing sphere, but it does not cover the full range.

As a nonprofit considering advocacy advertising, think through the strategies you use to promote various fundraising events and campaigns. You can leverage your advertising to get supporters to participate in your annual fun run or donate to the campaign you’re running. Take those tactics and use them to advocate for the cause at the heart of your mission.

What are you waiting for? Get out there and promote your cause!

If you want to find out more about advocacy, check out these additional resources:


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