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Hulu reverses policy, will use cable standards for political ads

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 7/27/2022 Michael Scherer, John Wagner
The logos for Netflix, Hulu, Disney Plus and Sling TV on a remote control in Portland, Ore., in August 2020. (Jenny Kane/AP) The logos for Netflix, Hulu, Disney Plus and Sling TV on a remote control in Portland, Ore., in August 2020. (Jenny Kane/AP)

The Disney-backed streaming service Hulu said Wednesday it will start accepting political ads with the same standards that the company uses for its cable networks, opening the door for issue advertising on controversial topics after Democratic groups attacked the company for rejecting ads on abortion and guns.

In a statement, Hulu said that “after a thorough review” over the last few months, Disney had decided to align Hulu’s political advertising policies to be consistent with the company’s sports and entertainment cable networks and the streaming service ESPN Plus.

“Hulu will now accept candidate and issue advertisements covering a wide spectrum of policy positions, but reserves the right to request edits” or other changes, “in alignment with industry standards,” the statement said.

The statement did not specifically mention advertisements on guns or abortion, but such ads have previously run on other Disney-owned cable networks, such as ESPN.

Democrats, angered by the rejection of two ads this month, organized a public pressure campaign on social media this week, asking supporters to denounce the Hulu policy. The protests were a top trending topic Tuesday on Twitter, with multiple accounts publicly announcing that they planned to cancel their service unless Hulu changed its policy.

An official working with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Governors Association said Wednesday that they planned to test whether the new Hulu policy will allow for ads focused on abortion and guns.

“We have re-submitted our advertisements to verify Hulu has changed their policies and will continue to engage with them until we receive confirmation that advertisements on these issue areas are allowed to run,” said the person, who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations at the committees.

Mosaic Communications, a Democratic advertising firm, announced in a news release Tuesday that it would stop buying candidate ads with Hulu until the policy changed. Julie Norton, a partner at the firm, said the Wednesday announcement appeared to resolve her concerns.

“It looks like they are trying to do the right thing at this point,” she said. “We certainly applaud them for moving in the right direction.”

The Washington Post reported Monday that Hulu has a policy against running content deemed controversial. Like other digital providers, it is not bound by the Communications Act of 1934, a law that requires broadcast television networks to provide politicians equal access to the airwaves.

Hulu has been shifting its approach to candidate advertising in recent weeks, after similar backlash from Democratic contenders. Suraj Patel, a congressional candidate in New York City, publicly protested the rejection of one of his ads, which mentioned gun violence, abortion and climate change, and showed images of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Hulu, which had a more permissive ad policy for candidates than issues, first allowed him to run the ad after he replaced a reference to climate change and removed the images of violence outside the Capitol.

Then on Monday after The Post article published, Hulu told his campaign that the version of the ad the company initially rejected would be allowed to run. A person familiar with the decision at Hulu, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record, said that Hulu had decided to accept the once-rejected ad before Monday but had not communicated it to Patel.

The three Democratic campaign arms tried to purchase joint ads on abortion and guns with Hulu on July 15, along with identical placements on a Disney-linked ABC affiliate in Philadelphia and the company’s cable sports channel ESPN. The Hulu ads never ran, while the others did.

“Hulu’s censorship of the truth is outrageous, offensive, and another step down a dangerous path for our country,” the executive directors of the three committees — Christie Roberts, Tim Persico and Noam Lee — said in a statement provided to The Post on Monday. “Voters have the right to know the facts about MAGA Republicans’ agenda on issues like abortion — and Hulu is doing a huge disservice to the American people by blocking voters from learning the truth about the GOP record or denying these issues from even being discussed.”

The tracking firm Kantar Media projects that $7.8 billion will be spent on political advertising for the 2022 midterm election season, with about $1.2 billion going to over-the-top and connected TV spending, a category that includes ads delivered through streaming services and set-top boxes such as Roku. The streaming spending, according to Kantar, is “the new darling of the political set.”

But streaming services have proved harder to negotiate with for political buyers. Disney has told advertisers that political and alcohol ads will not be accepted on Disney Plus, a separate streaming service, when it launches an ad-supported version later this year. Netflix announced this month that it is developing an ad-supported version with Microsoft, though the company has not specified its advertising policies.

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