The State of the People’s Pledge

August 21, 2014

With the Democratic primary for governor in its final weeks it is time for a status update on the People’s Pledge. The Pledge is an agreement signed by the three major candidates, Clay Pell, Angel Taveras, Gina Raimondo, designed to discourage advertising by third party organizations in the primary election. In the Pledge the candidates agree to make a donation to a charity of their opponent’s choosing using their campaign funds any time a third party organization makes an advertising expenditure on their behalf. You can read a copy of the final, signed document here.

The Pledge was negotiated by the campaign managers for the three candidates over the course of several weeks, and signed by the candidates in late April of 2014. During the negotiations, which were open and attended by members of the media, much attention was paid to the scope of activities covered by the Pledge. The final agreement defined “advertising” and “advertisement” as:

“a paid announcement transmitted through various media, including broadcast (e.g., television and radio), cable, satellite, online (including display advertising, interstitials, keyword advertising, pre-roll video and social advertising), billboards, print ads (including newspaper and magazine)”

The notable absence from this definition is direct mail advertising. In the last week we have seen evidence on social media, and through reports to the Board of Elections, that at least one third party group has begun to engage in direct mail advertising. During the negotiations all the campaigns expressed the desire to capture that spending in the definition of advertising but ultimately agreed that there was no reliable way to measure the cost of direct mail for purposes of enforcing the Pledge.

More recently another group has put up a YouTube video in support of a different candidate. While clearly produced professionally, there is no evidence, so far, that the group “paid” for the transmittal of the advertisement through a purchase of TV time, or paid online advertising. The signed People’s Pledge ties the penalty for a violation to the cost of an “Advertising Buy” which is defined as:

“a Third Party Organization’s purchase of advertising time and/or space in any media noted [in the above excerpt], for the purpose of airing, playing, displaying, or otherwise disseminating any Advertising;”

Because the third party organization did not seemingly engage in an advertising buy for the distribution of the video, and it does not seem to meet the definition of a “advertising” because it is not a “paid announcement” it does not appear to violate the terms of the Pledge.

The People’s Pledge was conceived as a way to deal with the lifting of restrictions on third party spending in the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Research has shown this third party organization to be more negative in tone, and funded by donations unlimited in size. By design the People’s Pledge does not include a role for the government, but rather relies on the public, the media, the respective campaigns and the attention they can bring to potential violations for enforcement.


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