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Is It Ethical to Use Stock Footage in Political Ads?

There's a new political ad out from the Trump campaign that is slickly produced, with a large number of seemingly average people artfully showing their distaste for Joe Biden's vision of America should he become president. Or is that actually the case? In what's an epic takedown of the ad, a former Obama spokesperson digs up every clip used in the video to show that not a moment of it is real, raising the question of whether such uses of stock footage have a place in ads that can easily sway the electorate.

The ad, dubbed the "Great American Comeback," was released earlier this month by the campaign. Progressive ad-maker Kevin Cate took a look at each shot in the original ad and tracked down the stock footage that was used to make it, and then assembled it all into one massive Twitter thread:

This isn't a general indictment of stock footage, as Cate puts it in a tweet: "Remember, the lesson isn’t that all stock b-roll is bad. I use it when budget, location, or time doesn’t permit original footage. The lesson is that it’s all he has — actors living in an alternative universe where his racism, selfishness, and stupidity hasn’t ruined the world yet."

But, when those ordinary people in the stock footage are made to represent a point of view that they may or may not share (and given that they're actors, I'm going to lean towards not), is it ethical to use them in that video? It's a very different thing than using slick time-lapses of cities or shots of factories. Buildings don't have feelings or values.

Cate points out that the ad leaned into many things that are antithetical to the Trump message, such as a clip of a teacher and student wearing masks, something the president himself has been reluctant to do or promote. Likewise, there's a clip showing solar panels being installed on a roof, and the president has doubled down on the opposite of solar panels in the form of coal. There was an attempt at diversity in the "Asian woman sitting on sofa and watching TV at home" clip but that's not readily viewable in the final product. Asian women aren't a huge part of Trump's base. There's also a "Mature aged black man putting on a tie" clip, which raises the question of why white models aren't as prominently identified as such and assumed to be the default, but that's a topic for another story entirely. I won't even touch the fake COVID vaccine footage.

It's not the first time or the last time that stock models and footage will appear in political advertisements, of course, but in an age where misinformation, disinformation, and lies poison the political waters, is it time that social media platforms consider tagging videos produced this way as untruthful? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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56 Comments

Alex Reiff's picture

Unfortunately, when you sign a model release, you're giving up control over how your image is used. It's been long understood that you could wind up being featured in an ad for herpes medication, so winding up in a Trump ad shouldn't be that shocking by comparison.

What I would like to see, though, is a small text disclaimer about how they're actors like you see in car commercials.

Michael Comeau's picture

I find it very strange that the author does not understand how model releases work for stock imagery.

Fontaine Lewis's picture

It's not a matter of legality, it's a matter of ethics, which the author is clear on. It's the difference between being allowed to do something, and whether or not it is the right thing to do.

Michael Comeau's picture

The model knowingly takes the risk of being in footage they may not like.

That's literally the point of the contract.

Alex Reiff's picture

That's one half of it. The other half is that political ads often feature real supporters, or actors who know who they're working for. A viewer of an ad may reasonably assume that one of those is true of the models, so the presentation itself could be seen as disingenuous.

Michael Comeau's picture

You could say the same thing about literally every ad in existence. People understand how commercials work.

dale clark's picture

Obviously, the author has not seen many political as thru the years

Alex Reiff's picture

I think most people understand that the purpose of a commercial is to sell them on something, not necessarily to present that thing in a fair and unbiased way. However, I mentioned car commercials in my original comment, and I've also seen this in commercials for lawyers - text on screen that outright tells you whether that person is an actor or a real client, and whether the content is based on actual customer reviews. I'd say the existence of those proves that there is some ambiguity.

I also don't think most people are aware of the idea of using stock footage of people in an ad. Commercials have, historically, featured an actor handling a product and/or talking about it, when if they don't use it personally, so the idea of a person appearing in a commercial totally unaware of what the product even is likely doesn't occur to a lot of people.

T Van's picture

Each of those commercials falls in different regulatory guidelines by the FCC.
Political advertising regulations are made by politicians.
Go figure that the only regulations are about revealing who paid for it and whether they are libelous.
Also note that the only time you see a mention about actors in ads is when they actually have lines to read on camera. Otherwise they are never declared as actors in ads.

Alex Reiff's picture

Good points. I guess I should have specified that by ambiguity, I was referring to how viewers would interpret it, not legal. But, the question remains - Just because this is the way it is, is this the way it should be? Should the regulations change? If they don't, is pointing out the use of stock model footage, like was done here, a fair and/or worthwhile endeavor?

T Van's picture

Only you can decide what you think is fair and worthwhile trying to change.
All I can say is Don Quixote was a great character, but not the kind of path I have the time and energy to pursue.
Human nature is a pretty stable platform.
Greed and the pursuit of power have been around as long as we have.

Tammie Lam's picture

Nothing is ethical if it comes from trump.

Willy Williams's picture

Don't ever make the mistake of associating ethics with politics. These are mutually incompatible.

David Pavlich's picture

Hear, hear!! You, sir, have stated a mouthful!!! :-)

Alexander Petrenko's picture

Ethical and legal.

Next.

Edison Wrzosek's picture

Legal, yes...

Ethical or moral? Hell no.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

It would be more ethical for you if they’d recreated the footage themselves?

Edison Wrzosek's picture

No, it would’ve been more ethical if A) they disclosed this was footage not related to the subject matter and B) not even bothered creating this political diatribe at all.

But then this is Orange Man we’re talking about, no morals, no ethics, no intelligence, just lies with every breath.

Tammie Lam's picture

The Orange man (tm) is a shameless, disgusting authoritarian. Nothing is ethical if it's coming from him or his minions.

Steven Dente's picture

Whichever side of the politics you are on please keep it off this photography site. We are bombarded with it every place we go. We come here to get away from it.

This particular author is on some sort of mission, writing articles from a slanted half truth perspective every time there is the slightest way to try and link it to photography. He lies easily as much as Trump does.

By the way I am not a supported of Trump for a lot f reasons. I just don't want politics mixed on my photography sites.

AA Pang's picture

Good job calling out Wasim Ahmad on this. I guess rational comments like yours and others, as at this point in time, is not something that Wasim would have liked to happen.

T Van's picture

Wasim's post's make Fstoppers more money than any of their other articles. Fstoppers is a business. He's probably loved by the financial managers. It's also interesting to see some of the comments and lets face it, they get way more comments and views than any of the site's other articles.

Enrique Olivieri's picture

This article definitely has political overtones and it's placement here is goal orientated. I just wish we could all have the "safe haven" for photography and stay away from political rhetoric. I immediately can see where this article wants to take us.

If the question being asked is it "ethical" to use stock footage in a political ad? This is also an integrity issue and the creators of the ads need to answer that. Personally, they paid for it, let them use it.

T Van's picture

Political advertising is big business. It's right up there with sports advertising. I make ads and work with people that I personally find repulsive. Their money is just as green as anybody else's. If I was a baker, I'd bake them a wedding cake if it paid the bills.
I personally think this discussion and article are legitimately about the photography business.

Enrique Olivieri's picture

I agree I also think this article does have issues that are worth discussing, though when you bring in and try to introduce your personal political agenda, whatever that may be then it becomes an unethical article, the writer is trying to sublimely bring his political views to the forefront of this article. By the way I definitely agree, if it pays the bills....

Ivan Lantsov's picture

"For valuable consideration received..."

Alexander Petrenko's picture

Is it ethical to post political posts on photo sites for money? Is it legal?

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

It's an ad. Anyone not unhinged can tell they're just clips put together.

--- "in an age where misinformation, disinformation, and lies poison the political waters"

LOL, that's rich, coming from you and the mainstream media you support. smh

Peter Mueller's picture

...epic takedown? maggot.

(Not your comment, BZE. The author's.)

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