When the Hell Did "I Approve This Message" Become a Thing?
"I'm [insert name here], and I approve this message."
Yes, we've all heard it: the ubiquitous sentence that comes at the beginning or end of campaign ads every election cycle. It's one of the few enduring and bipartisan moments that can be seen on televisions from Abbeville, Louisiana, to Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico.
But when exactly did "I approve this message" become a thing? When allies of President John Adams referred to challenger Thomas Jefferson as "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father" during the campaign of 1800, there was nary a mention of Adams' personal approval.
The emergence of the phrase didn't coincide with the arrival of the age of television, either. In President Lyndon B. Johnson's famous 1964 "Daisy" ad, which implied that a vote for Arizona Republican presidential nominee Sen. Barry Goldwater could result in a nuclear holocaust, a stern voice-over tells viewers to "Vote for President Johnson on Nov. 3. The stakes are too high for you to stay home." But no Texas-drawl mark of approval from the president.
The origin of "I approve this ad" lies buried in the text of the landmark Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, better known as the McCain-Feingold Act, or simply McCain-Feingold, named after its sponsors. In that law, a little-known amendment — the "Stand By Your Ad" provision — paved the way for the ubiquitousness of "I approve this message" in campaign advertising.
"I wrote it with Susan Collins, the senator from Maine," Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, told Mic in a phone interview. "I thought it was important because voters deserve to know who is responsible for the political messages that inform the national debate."
As the title of the provision suggests (which is itself a rarity in the Orwellian world of law-naming in Washington), candidates who air ads over public airwaves are required by law to identify themselves as responsible for the content. The original intent of the law was to prevent eleventh-hour mudslinging that candidates would be able to disavow after the fact, Wyden said.
"I've always thought that when you have the candidates actually have to stand behind it in that way, that makes a candidate a little bit more careful in terms of what they say and how it's perceived," Wyden told Mic.
Right law, wrong time: Despite noble intentions, the major flaw of the Stand By Your Ad provision wasn't in the text but its timing.
The law only applies to ads for which candidate committees directly pay. While there are still plenty of those filling the airwaves, the dirtiest, nastiest ads — exactly the ones Stand By Your Ad was supposed to prevent — often come from super PACs and shadowy independent organizations whose financing and backers are a mystery to the vast majority of viewers.
The Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United allowed unlimited donations to super PACs, which have altered the political playing field. Now, rather than any single person, massive political ad campaigns are often bankrolled by groups with names like "Security Is Strength," the super PAC supporting the candidacy of Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham from South Carolina.
"It needs to be extended," David Price, a veteran Democratic congressman from North Carolina who played a key role in shepherding the provision through the House of Representatives, told Mic on the phone. "It doesn't work at all with some of this new technology and some of the new players."
Unfortunately for Wyden, Price and other advocates of disclosure, what was once a policy with bipartisan support has now, like everything else in Washington, become a victim of increased polarization. Attempts have been made to update the law through the Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections Act, better known as the DISCLOSE Act. The act would have brought more transparency to individual, outside donors and required individual, independent sponsors to offer the same stamp of approval currently required by Stand By Your Ad. That effort narrowly failed in a Senate vote in 2010.
Subsequent and similar ideas have fallen short. In 2014, Price unveiled the Stand By Every Ad Act, which would have required the leaders of super PACs, corporations and special interest groups to appear in their organization's ads, as well as their top five donors. It went nowhere.
"I think it's an uphill fight at this moment given who's in charge of both houses of Congress and given the rightward turn of the Republican party," Price told Mic.
There is, however, one bit of good news for disclosure advocates in a horizon full of gridlock. While stagnation reigns, "I approve this message" will likely be with us for a long time.