A look inside ESPN's ad-approval process

How does ESPN assess advertisements for its networks? And why does it sometimes reject them? The answers sometimes depend not just on the ads themselves, but on where those ads send viewers and what they find there.

That issue came up late last month in connection with an ad from the Rise Up and Register Campaign, a voter-registration effort aimed at NASCAR fans. In the ad, second-year racer Blake Koch (pronounced Cook) notes that more than half of racing fans didn’t vote in the last election, and admits he was one of them.

"It’s time for all of us -- the entire NASCAR nation -– to rise up and make our voices heard in this election," he says.

ESPN rejected Rise Up and Register’s ad, deciding it violated its policy (communicated to ad agencies) of not taking ads that include political or issue-oriented advocacy or ads from religious institutions. Last month, Koch -– who often shares his testimony at churches -- appeared on "Fox and Friends" to discuss the decision and whether he was being targeted for his religious beliefs.

"I didn’t think that my faith in Christ would have an impact on whether or not a sponsor could air a commercial or not," he told Fox.

Ed Durso, ESPN’s executive vice president for administration, told the Poynter Review Project that the network’s issue wasn’t with the ad itself, but with the Web sites associated with it. Those sites "had messages that are clearly, in my opinion, in the area of advocacy," Durso said, adding that "we decided based on those criteria that we wouldn’t accept it."

ESPN guidelines don’t outlaw related Web sites, and Durso said the network evaluates every proposal "on its own merits." But he adds that ESPN has maintained "a consistent policy that links to advocacy sites violate our guidelines."

As of this writing, Rise Up and Register’s site, which says its mission is to register more than a million new voters this year, includes links to Koch’s site, to a form used by people who’d like Koch to speak at churches, and to Be My Vote, a site aimed at registering pro-life voters as part of efforts to stop abortion.

Durso said every ad submitted to ESPN is reviewed against the network’s guidelines. If questions arise, they’re discussed with the ad-sales representatives responsible for that client, as well as others at ESPN who might have an interest. For example, Durso says, questions about an NBA ad might lead to consultations with ESPN’s programming arm.

If there’s sufficient uncertainty about an ad, it lands on Durso’s desk -– which is what happened with the Rise Up and Register spot. Durso said he consulted with ad sales and ESPN’s corporate outreach department, reviewed the ad and Rise Up’s site and decided "in relatively short order" that it didn’t meet ESPN’s standards.

"It didn’t appear to me that voter registration was the primary objective of the websites and what they’re all about," Durso said.

Rise Up and Register’s case "is not as unique as you might think," Durso said, adding that the spot arrived not long after ESPN turned down an environmental-advocacy ad, again because of an associated site.

"We turn down a lot of those," Durso said, adding that "people aren’t turning to ESPN for political debate. There are plenty of other places to get that if they want it."

Durso said many of the ad agencies ESPN with which works are aware of its guidelines, but noted that with new ad campaigns constantly emerging, advertisers, agencies and account managers often change. Moreover, he said, "cause-related efforts are a growing component [of advertising], so it is not surprising that more of these types of issues are emerging."

As for Koch’s religious beliefs, Durso said they weren’t relevant to ESPN’s decision.

"We’re not trying to make judgments about anything or anyone," he said. "In fact, we try to avoid that."

The fate of Rise Up’s ad raises an interesting point for ESPN and other networks in the digital age: How much weight should be given to material associated with an ad campaign, and how direct must that association be to violate standards? Durso said there’s "no precise answer" to such questions; he and others at ESPN look at what’s presented and make a judgment based on that review.

We agree that it’s not an easy question to answer. By its very nature, the Web can take you from one place to somewhere very different in dizzyingly short order. And some goals are worthy regardless of the political bent of those encouraging them -– a category in which we’d certainly include increased voter registration and engagement.

But that is what makes the Rise Up and Register campaign so interesting. The Koch spot is a straightforward voter-registration message aimed at a fan base whose political bent is by no means uniform, and Rise Up and Register’s site seems relatively neutral politically. But that’s not true of BeMyVote; its goal is clearly political advocacy.

Our point of view is that material on sites associated with an ad shouldn’t be subjected to an all-or-nothing standard, but assessed the same way a new visitor might see them. What conclusion would that visitor draw from the material presented, the links featured, and their prominence?

We don’t think links helping people arrange a church visit by Koch amount to a violation of ESPN’s prohibition on messages from religious institutions, but BeMyVote is clearly an advocacy site, and one given a prominent position on Rise Up and Register’s site. One can agree or disagree with ESPN’s standards prohibiting advocacy messages, but we think its decision to reject Right to Register’s ad was a proper interpretation of those standards.

Durso said sponsors frequently come back to ESPN to discuss what has to be changed to win approval. Rise Up and Register hasn’t contacted ESPN since the network’s decision, he said, but added that if the group’s ad agency wanted to discuss the campaign, ESPN would share its concerns.

"We’re open to working with people," Durso said, adding that "we’re not a closed shop."