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Hulu Begins Streaming Political Issue Ads, Perhaps Sets Precedent for Other Streamers

Joshua Thiede

With mid-term elections quickly approaching, political pundits are in a race to dominate the airways. Hulu made headlines earlier this month for rejecting political ads that reference topics that the service deems to be “sensitive.” After candidates adjust the ads based on the streamer’s notes, they have been allowed to air.

While not exactly addressing the issue, Hulu’s mouse-eared management have decided to make some company-wide policy changes. According to a report from Axios, Hulu will begin allowing political issue ads to air on its platform, in addition to the campaign ads that were already appearing. This change will bring the service in line with Disney’s cable TV airing strategy on the subject.

In the ads that were initially rejected earlier this month, Democratic candidates discussed “sensitive” topics, specifically gun control, abortion rights and climate change. Since these issues are key points for Democratic candidates this election cycle, the party called foul on the decision.

That may be why Disney has come forward stating that Hulu will run issue ads with the same allowances as with its linear TV channels such as ESPN and FX. These guidelines were established for stations using broadcast airways technically owned by the U.S. Government and it is illegal to restrict political messages on linear TV. By bringing Hulu in line with the standardized policy, Disney avoids looking like it’s taking sides.

Disney already found itself in political hot water this year as its CEO refused to speak out against Florida's “Don't Say Gay” legislation, despite employing thousands of LGBT cast members in Florida. Doubtless the company wants to maintain a neutral stance moving forward and having its streaming services follow the same well-established rules as cable channels is an excellent way to save face.

Currently, streaming is delivered via over-the-top (OTT) services, or is sent directly to customers without need for any federal broadcast infrastructure. This means Disney and other streamers don’t have to follow the same rules as broadcast TV, but the House of Mouse is setting a precedent that other companies may wish to align with.

Disney+ is quickly developing its own ad-supported video-on-demand (AVOD) subscription tier but has already stated that will not be airing any political ads. The decision would keep the Disney brand focused on family entertainment, something that adult-oriented campaign ads would definitely interfere with. However, ESPN+ will be under no such constraints.

As the ad-supported video-on-demand (AVOD) concept becomes more common in the streaming industry, more companies are going to face pushback from advertisers with very specific goals in mind. Political messages are particularly troublesome, but taking a cue from established policy may be the best way for streamers to profit from campaign infighting while remaining a neutral ground for their customers.

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