The Disney-backed streaming service Hulu is refusing to run political ads on central themes of Democratic midterm campaigns, including abortion and guns, prompting fury from the party’s candidates and leaders.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Democratic Governors Association tried to purchase joint ads on abortion and guns with Hulu on July 15, along with identical placements on a Disney-affiliated 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 Washington Post. “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 party committees join a growing list of Democratic candidates who have had spots mentioning gun violence, abortion or political violence rejected by Hulu.
Suraj Patel, a Democratic candidate for Congress in New York City, posted a letter of protest, first reported by Jezebel, to Disney CEO Bob Chapek and Hulu President Joe Earley complaining that a Hulu representative told his campaign there was an “unwritten Hulu policy” that deemed the topics in one of his ads too “sensitive” for the platform. The ad in question mentioned Republican successes around abortion, climate change and gun violence, while also showing footage of the violence from the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“To not discuss these topics in my campaign ad is to not address the most important issues facing the United States,” Patel wrote. “Your ban on mobilization messaging has a perverse effect on Democracy.”
Patel said in an interview Sunday that the ad was allowed to run after he edited it, replacing the word “climate change” with “democracy” and replacing the footage of violence at the U.S. Capitol with footage of former president Donald Trump. He has not received a response from Chapek or Earley, he said.
“This policy has incredible implications for people nationwide, both voters and people running for office,” Patel said. “You need to communicate with younger voters on the mediums where they are watching. Cable is not where they are watching.”
Hulu contacted Patel’s campaign Monday afternoon, after the initial publication of this story that morning, to tell him that his original ad would be accepted, including the images of violence on Jan. 6.
“I want to thank Hulu for allowing Americans to know about the most pressing issues of our day,” Patel said in a statement after the approval. “Sometimes a simple conversation can make change.”
A person familiar with Hulu’s policies, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk about internal matters, said the decision to approve Patel’s ad had been made before Monday, though it was not immediately communicated to his campaign. This person said that the company does not publicly disclose its advertising guidelines but that they prohibit advertising that takes a position on a controversial issue, regardless of whether it is a political ad. The ads are reviewed on a case-by-case basis, with edits sometimes recommended to the advertisers.
In recent months, the company has reevaluated its policy implementation to give candidates greater flexibility to explain their positions, the person said.
“We do accept candidate ads that reference those topics,” this person said about abortion and gun violence. “It needs to be in context.”
Disney and Hulu declined through a spokesperson a request for comment.
The blocked ads do not use violent or jarring imagery. One spot lists statistics about the harm of gun violence and criticizes Republican efforts to block more gun regulation. The other warns that Republicans are trying to “rip away” access to abortion without exceptions for rape, incest or the lives of those who are pregnant.
Disney faced a separate employee backlash earlier this year after corporate leaders declined to make a public statement opposing a Republican bill in Florida that prohibited teachers from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity with younger students. Chapek subsequently reversed course, apologized to his workers, criticized the Republican measure and froze campaign contributions in Florida.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) responded by signing a bill intended to strip Disney World of its special tax status near Orlando.
“It’s really problematic that when a company had been so synonymous with parents of young children to come out against the parents’ rights bill,” DeSantis said.
The tracking firm Kantar Media projects $7.8 billion will be spent on political advertising for the 2022 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 like 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.
Democratic concerns over Hulu’s ad policies have been exacerbated by the company’s vague and sometimes contradictory communications with ad buyers. Three days after placing the ad buy, the three Democratic committees were told by Hulu through a vendor that the delay was “content related,” according to a person familiar with the events, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the internal process.
The next day, Democrats scheduled a call with Hulu to discuss the matter, but the Hulu officials canceled the call just as it was about to begin, suggesting by email that they reschedule “later in the day,” the person said. Hulu officials did not communicate further that day.
An attorney for the Democratic committees emailed twice and called twice the following day, in an effort to restart discussions, receiving no response, the person said. The following day, on Thursday, Lance Delaney, an account executive in Disney advertising sales, emailed to say, “We have received creative approval,” only to follow up hours later with a message that said, “This message was sent in error.”
Patel’s campaign received a similar message from a Hulu representative on Thursday, asking him to resubmit the original ad. He said the Hulu official suggested that “they had some kind of meeting and standards were changing.” The following day, Patel said, the campaign was told the original ad would still not run. On Monday, he found out it would run.
This is not the first time Democrats have been angered by digital providers refusing their ads. During the 2020 campaign cycle, Priorities USA Action and the Color of Change PAC, two independent liberal groups, had ads rejected by Hulu, Google and Verizon that showed clips of police hitting protesters during that summer’s protests over police brutality.
“Anti-violence content policies were clearly put in place for good reasons but we don’t live in reasonable times,” Jenn Stowe, the deputy executive director of Priorities USA, said in a statement at the time.