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Hulu Reportedly Rejects ‘Sensitive’ Campaign Ads, Muddying Waters Ahead of Midterm Elections

Matt Tamanini

It might only be July, but campaign season is starting to rev up as the United States approaches congressional midterm elections in November. The worlds of media and advertising have changed rather significantly since the last national election in 2020, and candidates are starting to experience the ramifications of the ever-shifting realities.

As more consumer attention has shifted away from traditional linear television to subscription and live TV streaming services, so have politicians’ ad dollars. As candidates look to appeal to a younger, more technologically-savvy electorate, they have begun to run into a handful of issues that are not as prevalent on traditional broadcast.

Last week, Jezebel reported on congressional candidate Suraj Patel having a campaign ad initially rejected by Hulu due to what it defined as “sensitive” issues. The New York Democrat is looking to unseat long-serving Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Jerry Nadler in New York’s recently redrawn 12th district in next month’s primary election. However, after submitting his latest ad to Hulu as part of a $175,000 ad buy, the Disney-owned streaming service rejected the commercial and asked Patel to make changes before it could air.

The ad, which appeared unedited on cable in Manhattan, included references to abortion rights, gun laws, climate change, and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. According to a campaign source, the streamer informed the campaign that the ad violated its rules against sensitive issues in campaign ads, although it makes such determinations on a case-by-case basis and doesn’t publish or distribute a list of what is and isn’t considered sensitive.

“It became very clear that this was a conversation that had to happen by phone, not by email, because they didn’t want it in writing, which is always a kind of red flag,” a Patel campaign source told Jezebel. “We were told that there are some new guidelines that they have, and our ad was not approved by their quality control. What had gotten our ad rejected was that we had three ‘sensitive topics’ in the ad, which were abortion, gun laws, and climate change.”

Bloomberg subsequently reported that the streamer suggested that the ad instead focus on less “sensitive” issues like taxes and infrastructure. Patel’s campaign refused to eliminate references to guns or abortion, but did recut the ad to remove references to climate change instead focusing on democracy, while also removing images from the Jan. 6 Capitol riots. Hulu approved the ad on Patel’s second attempt.

Unlike broadcast networks — who technically use the airwaves owned by the government — streaming services are not required to provide equal access to candidates and are not forced to air ads regardless of the content or truth of their message.

Throughout the year, traditional and streaming broadcasters have touted increased revenue projections due to anticipated primary spending. During this election cycle, it is expected that over $9 billion will be spent on advertising, and according to AdImpact, $1.5B of that is forecast to be funneled to streaming services.

Jezebel also reported that in May, U.S. Representative Carolyn Bourdeaux had a pro-choice ad rejected by Hulu over similar concerns around “sensitive” topics. The Georgia Democrat lost her primary bid later that month.

Earlier this year, Disney announced that it would not accept any political advertising on its forthcoming ad-supported tier for Disney+. However, by airing political ads on Hulu (and accepting the sizeable influx of revenue), the corporation has opened itself to a number of complicated questions.

In a letter sent to Disney CEO Bob Chapek and Hulu president Joe Earley, Bloomberg reports that Patel wrote, “How are voters supposed to make informed choices if their candidates cannot talk about the most important issues of the day?”

With the ever-escalating proliferation of streaming options, most services cannot afford to turn their backs on political advertising altogether, as the bi-annual infusion of ad-spending is one of the things that has buoyed traditional and streaming broadcasters for generations. However, consumers are increasingly unreceptive to, and even angered by, political ads, forcing streamers — who are not bound by law to air political ads — to walk a very thin line.

On one hand, a large number of customers are not interested in being served political commercials at all, especially at the high volume that often happens in the fall. On the other hand, some viewers in our current, hyper-partisan environment likely are only interested in ads for their respective party’s candidates. So, it makes sense why streamers would like candidates to tone down the rhetoric in ads airing on their platforms as to avoid alienating any substantial portion of their viewing audiences.

However, the younger audiences that flock to streaming also tend to be the most passionate about the more “sensitive” issues surrounding elections, regardless of party. So, if platforms force candidates to water down their ads too much, the value might not be as great.

“My base is going to be relatively younger voters,” Patel said, according to Bloomberg. “It’s very essential that we get the mobilization message out to people in the medium they consume.”

One reason that candidates prefer advertising on streaming over traditional broadcast and cable is because of streaming’s ability to hyper-focus commercials to subsets of the population based on data collected by the service. This applies not only to location but also to interests and beliefs gleaned by their online choices. That is not possible on traditional television which, by the nature of the medium, must use a one-size fits all approach.

Undoubtedly, audiences will see an increase in political advertising as we move toward November’s midterm elections, but it will be interesting to see how candidates’ ads differ from linear to streaming to web to social media, and how much streaming services play a part in crafting the individual commercials.


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