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Was Obama’s Red Cross Ad Designed to Dodge FEC Rules?

PSA launched days before election resembles Obama stump speech

An ad featuring President Obama released last week appears to have been produced with taxpayer funds, allowing President Obama to reach out to television viewers without adhering to strict federal disclosure rules for political ads. Following up on observations made by TownHall.com contributor Ron Meyer, Media Trackers has uncovered more questions than answers about the president’s recent public service announcement (PSA).

No Federal Election Commission (FEC) disclosure of who paid for the message was included in the commercial, although Meyer noted clear parallels between the PSA script and President Obama’s stump speech. General references to community and working together were accompanied by an assertion that “we have each other’s backs,” a phrase included almost verbatim in Obama’s 2012 State of the Union Address and afterward used in official campaign materials imploring supporters to “get his back.”

The phrase “We look out for one another” also appears in both the ad and a November 2 Obama campaign speech in Colorado.

According to the FEC, “electioneering communication” rules apply when:

  • The communication refers to a clearly identified federal candidate;
  • The communication is publicly distributed by a television station, radio station, cable television system or satellite system for a fee; and
  • The communication is distributed within 60 days prior to a general election or 30 days prior to a primary election to federal office.

Only with regard to distribution fees does a typical campaign ad meeting these FEC criteria differ from a PSA featuring a federal candidate speaking directly to the camera for nearly 60 seconds.

The Obama PSA concluded by displaying the official American Red Cross logo and the logo for National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD), a group which includes the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency. When contacted for comment, an American Red Cross spokeswoman stated the charity was not responsible for the video’s production or distribution.

“The White House produced and distributed the PSA featuring Obama, and I am not aware of a similar PSA developed by [GOP presidential nominee Mitt] Romney,” American Red Cross of Greater Columbus Chief Communications Officer Lynn Cook wrote in response to a Media Trackers inquiry.

“The spot is [a] public service announcement recorded by the White House several weeks ago in support of the Red Cross and other voluntary disaster response agencies,” Cook wrote in a separate communication. ”Because it’s a public service announcement, it’s offered to broadcasters to run at a time of their choosing and they are not paid ad placements. The Red Cross did not pay for the production of the ad nor did we buy air time to place the ad on television.”

On Friday, November 2, AdWeek reported that the American Red Cross had produced “a personal appeal for Red Cross donations from President Barack Obama” that was to begin airing that night. It is unknown whether this was a reference to a different television spot, or if the AdWeek reporter was mistaken.

An October 27 news item on the American Red Cross website titled “Video: President Obama PSA on Volunteer Organizations and Disaster Response” included an embedded video which is hidden from the public as of this writing. Although the “P” in PSA stands for “Public,” the YouTube video is set as “private.”  The Red Cross web page contained no other information, but the video appears to be the same PSA Meyer recorded from television on November 3 based on the freeze-frame shown on the American Red Cross site.

An item on the NVOAD home page titled “A Message from President Obama” also features a screen capture that appears to be from the same commercial Meyer recorded from his television. As with the American Red Cross announcement, the headline links to a YouTube video that is flagged as “private” and is currently inaccessible.

The ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC affiliates in Columbus, OH all indicated they have not aired — or did not even receive — the PSA.

ABC and FOX affiliates in Denver told a Media Trackers Colorado reporter the ad had not run, while CBS and NBC stations advised that PSA records are not public because they are not considered political advertising.

Stations in Milwaukee, WI would neither confirm nor deny whether they had aired the PSA when questioned by a Media Trackers Wisconsin investigator.

Cross-posted from Media Trackers Ohio.

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