The 2019 Palm Springs City Council election slate is not even set yet—that won’t happen until the candidate-nomination period closes Aug. 9—but one candidate, Alan “Alfie” Pettit, got an early start on his advertising by promoting his campaign via the cover story of the June 27-July 3 edition of the Coachella Valley Weekly.
The cover art showed Pettit—well-known locally as his drag alter ego, Arial Trampway—standing on top of his campaign vehicle. The cover featured a “Drag Out the Vote!” headline, a direct appeal for readers to “Elect Alan ‘Alfie’ Pettit” (via the text on the side of the vehicle) and his website address. The accompanying piece was an exceedingly flattering quasi-news story/endorsement of his candidacy.
The story was formatted and presented just like the other stories within the issue. What did not appear anywhere in print was a disclaimer saying that the content in question was paid for by the candidate’s campaign—nor was there any language at all disclosing that the story was actually a paid advertisement.
Therein lies the problem.
According to the California Fair Political Practices Commission (CFPPC): “Under California’s Political Reform Act … committees must include ‘Paid for by’ disclaimers on campaign advertising. A candidate’s campaign committee, a political action committee, a ballot measure committee, a political party committee, a major donor, and a person or entity making independent expenditures on candidates or ballot measures in California are all types of committees that are subject to disclaimer rules.”
Also, according to the California Election Code: “Any paid political advertisement that refers to an election or to any candidate for state or local elective office and that is contained in or distributed with a newspaper, shall bear on each surface of page thereof … the words ‘Paid Political Advertisement.’”
When I called Pettit, who is running for the Palm Springs City Council seat in the newly created District 3, he referred me to his campaign manager, Randy Economy, of Rancho Mirage.
Ecomomy said that the campaign was approached by Coachella Valley Weekly regarding the cover story.
“CV Weekly is a publication that people have the opportunity to buy advertorials (in), and as far as I’m concerned, we’ve done everything correct on our end,” he said. “To me, (the CV Weekly) is not an editorial publication. To me, it’s more of an advertising publication. And I’m a campaign consultant who’s just trying to get my guy elected to office. Having the opportunity to be on the cover of CV Weekly, and I was approached by them to be able to do it … absolutely, I’m going to jump on that.”
Why didn’t the layout contain the CFPPC’s mandated disclaimer?
“If the CV Weekly chooses to run their publication that way, that’s their prerogative,” Economy said. “We (the Pettit campaign) didn’t do anything against CFPPC rules as far as disclosure is concerned. It will all be included in our campaign (financial reporting) statements.”
According to CFPPC guidelines, Economy’s analysis is not accurate.
When contacted via phone, CFPPC Communications Director Jay Wierenga—while declining to comment specifically on the matter involving Pettit and CV Weekly—said that when purchasing a newspaper ad, it is the candidate or his committee’s ultimate responsibility to make sure the disclaimer accompanies the advertorial placement.
The article, as it was originally posted on the Coachella Valley Weekly website on June 26, also appears to violate Federal Trade Commission standards for online advertising. The FTC’s guide regarding native advertising (which includes advertorial-style stories) states: “A basic truth-in-advertising principle is that it’s deceptive to mislead consumers about the commercial nature of content. Advertisements or promotional messages are deceptive if they convey to consumers expressly or by implication that they’re independent, impartial, or from a source other than the sponsoring advertiser—in other words, that they’re something other than ads. Why would it be material to consumers to know the source of the information? Because knowing that something is an ad likely will affect whether consumers choose to interact with it and the weight or credibility consumers give the information it conveys.”
The online version of the Alfie Pettit piece originally displayed no disclaimer or notice that the piece was actually a paid advertisement, and still did not more than a week after it was published. However, after the Independent started making inquiries regarding this story, a graphic was added to the very bottom of the piece, stating: “This article was paid for and approved by Alfie Pettit.”
CV Weekly publisher and editor Tracy Dietlin had not responded to several phone calls as of our press deadline.
Combating a lack of awareness of the legal requirements governing paid political messaging is one of the objectives pursued by Wierenga. In our conversation, he mentioned his hope that news coverage of potential violations of California’s campaign-advertising laws may spur a citizen to file a complaint, which would be investigated by the CFPPC enforcement arm.
Any California voter may file a complaint with the CFPPC if they discover what appears to be deceptive political advertising at www.fppc.ca.gov/enforcement/file-a-complaint.html.
Below: A screenshot of Alfie Pettit’s website.