Candidates say, ‘I approve this message,’ but why?

“I’m [INSERT NAME HERE] and I approve this message” is a familiar refrain in these final days of the 2020 election season. But have you ever wondered why candidates are required to use that phrase at the end of their broadcast ads?

It’s because of a provision in the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, the Stand By Your Ad provision. The law was co-authored by Democrat Russ Feingold and the late John McCain, both of whom were serving in the U.S. Senate. McCain, a Republican, and Feingold wrote the bill in an effort to legitimize campaign contributions by banning large corporate donations.

The Stand By Your Ad provision requires anyone running for federal office to include “I approve this message” as part of their campaign commercials. The goal, according to The New York Times, was to limit insults and accusations at one another.

The Federal Election Commission is specific about how that disclaimer should appear. The written statement must come at the end of the ad, appear for at least four seconds, be readable against a contrasting background and occupy at least 4% of the vertical picture height. The candidate will typically identify themselves and say the message aloud.

If the message was not approved by a candidate, then the spot will typically name the entity that is responsible, usually a political committee, group or person. There’s also usually language about who financed the commercial.