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Advocacy advertising: A complete guide to promote your cause

August 03, 2020
Reach passionate supporters of your cause like these protesters with advocacy advertising.

If your nonprofit organization or public agency does advocacy work, you know how intertwined it is with spreading awareness. Advocacy starts with publicly expressing interest in a cause and requires gaining support for that cause to make an impact.

Just as it sounds, the term “advocacy advertising” refers to the process of promoting an advocacy campaign. Advocacy advertising uses the persuasiveness of commercial advertising techniques to gain support for a cause. In this guide, we’ll walk through how to incorporate advertising into your organization’s advocacy work by answering some commonly asked questions.

What is advocacy advertising?

Advocacy advertising usually refers to marketing communications that look to gain support for social, political, or economic issues. Because there is a wide range of subjects you could advocate for, the range of advocacy advertising opportunities is equally large. However, the overarching goal of advocacy advertising is to raise awareness of your organization’s cause and persuade your audience to take action.

Advocacy advertising can be led by a variety of organizations, including:

  • Nonprofits
  • Advocacy groups
  • Lobbyists
  • Corporations
  • Interest groups

It’s also important to note that the term “advocacy marketing” is not synonymous with advocacy advertising. Advocacy marketing occurs when for-profit companies have loyal customers share positive information about their brand to attract new business. For instance, if a coffee shop were to ask customers to share a photo of their favorite beverage on their personal social media accounts with a specific hashtag, that would be advocacy marketing. 

Instead of focusing on promoting products and increasing revenue, advocacy advertising is concerned with effecting societal change. Examples might include an environmental organization running a social media campaign to show why recycling is important, or an animal rescue creating a television ad to encourage community members to support the welfare of dogs and cats in need in their area.

What channels are used in advocacy advertising?

When you hear the word “advertising,” television ads likely come to mind first. Many organizations have run successful advocacy advertisements on TV, especially animal welfare nonprofits like the Humane Society. Print advertising methods have also been used for advocacy, such as AAA’s billboard ads discouraging texting while driving.

Because advocacy advertising refers generally to promotions that support and raise awareness about issues or causes, it can be accomplished through any of the channels your organization normally uses to communicate with supporters, including:

  • Your website
  • Email marketing
  • Print or digital flyers
  • Social media
  • Google Ads

To succeed in advocacy advertising, you need to weigh the available resources and costs against effectiveness. Look at what communication channels your organization is already using and where you might have opportunities to expand your promotions. Then choose your advocacy advertising methods accordingly.

What are the types of advocacy advertising?

There are two main types of advocacy advertising: nonprofit and political. As long as nonprofit organizations follow a few simple guidelines, they can promote their advocacy campaigns without risking their tax-exempt status or incurring other consequences. Political advocacy advertising invites more legal complexities, but if your organization understands the basics, you can still make the most of promoting your cause. Let’s look at these two categories of advocacy advertising in more detail.

Nonprofit advocacy advertising

The main rule of nonprofit advocacy is that it must be focused on nonpartisan issues only.  Nonprofit organizations aren’t permitted to advocate for issues that heavily affect one specific political party and retain their 501(c)3 status. Most notably, they can’t endorse specific candidates running for office.

Do your research and seek expert advice if you’re unsure whether your nonprofit organization is allowed to promote a particular legislative measure. However, most issues that aren’t directly related to a law or election are fair game for nonprofit advocacy advertising. 

Political advocacy advertising

The main aspect to understand about political advocacy advertising is the difference between two terms that were defined by the Supreme Court in 1976: issue advocacy and express advocacy.

Issue advocacy teaches the public about societal issues and falls under First Amendment free speech protections. Any individual, union, or corporation can participate in issue advocacy advertising or donate to the causes they advertise without limits. Additionally, funding specifics don’t have to be reported publicly. In general, federal election laws don’t apply to promoting issue advocacy.

On the other hand, express advocacy is regulated by federal election laws as it directly prescribes that its audience help defeat or elect a candidate for public office. Express advocacy advertisements can’t be funded by corporate or union contributions, and individual donation amounts are limited. Plus, all donors have to be publicly disclosed.

Since the creation of this distinction between express advocacy and issue advocacy, there have been extensive debates about it. For your organization, the bottom line is to take special care with political advocacy advertising, and the safest route is sticking to the issues.

Create lasting change with advocacy advertising

As long as your organization abides by the guidelines surrounding advocacy advertising, it's an effective strategy to spread awareness and get more supporters involved in your advocacy campaigns. Leverage multiple communication channels, track engagement data, and collect feedback from supporters to make the most of advocacy advertising as your organization works to create lasting change.

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    Supporter Engagement
  • Social justice
  • Nonprofits
  • Public agencies
  • Digital communications & marketing