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TikTok Spends Millions on Ad Blitz as Congress Considers Banning the App

TechTikTok Spends Millions on Ad Blitz as Congress Considers Banning the App

In a TV commercial, Sister Monica Clare, a nun in northern New Jersey, walks through a church that’s bathed in sunlight and sits in a pew, crossing herself. Her message: TikTok is a force for good.

“Because of TikTok, I’ve created a community where people can feel safe asking questions about spirituality,” she says in the advertisement.

Sister Monica Clare is one of several fans of TikTok — along with drawling ranchers, a Navy veteran known as Patriotic Kenny and entrepreneurs — whom the company is highlighting in commercials as it faces intense scrutiny in Washington.

“TikTok definitely has a branding issue in the United States,” Sister Monica Clare, 58, said in an interview. “Most people that you talk to, especially people above the age of 60, will say that TikTok is just a bunch of superficial garbage. They don’t use it. They don’t understand what the content is.

“It’s very smart of TikTok to say no, that’s not what we are — we’re a lot more than that,” she added.

That seems to be the idea driving TikTok’s multimillion-dollar marketing blitz on TV and rival social platforms nationwide — tagged #KeepTikTok — as the Senate considers a bill that would force the company’s Chinese owner, ByteDance, to sell the app or have it face a national ban. Many lawmakers from both parties have said the app could endanger American users’ private data or be used as a Chinese propaganda tool.

Since the House voted in favor of the bill three weeks ago, the company has spent at least $3.1 million on advertising time for commercials that are scheduled to run through April, according to data from AdImpact, a media tracking firm. Some of the places it’s most heavily targeting are the presidential election battleground states of Pennsylvania, Nevada and Ohio, according to the data. TikTok has also spent more than $100,000 on Facebook and Instagram ads recently, according to Meta’s Ad Library.

TikTok said it was spending more than AdImpact’s data showed, but the company did not provide specifics. When asked about its advertising efforts, Michael Hughes, a spokesman for TikTok, said, “We think the public at large should know that the government is attempting to trample the free speech rights of 170 million Americans and devastate seven million small businesses nationwide.”

The advertisements are part of a broad lobbying campaign by TikTok to reshape the perception of the company among lawmakers and the public. It has vocally opposed the bill, which it has framed as an outright ban, saying it has not and would not share data with Beijing or allow any government to influence its algorithmic recommendations of videos for users to watch.

ByteDance spent $8.7 million on lobbying last year, according to OpenSecrets, a nonprofit research group, and its in-house team and a variety of outside firms are trying to influence lawmakers. It has rallied its vast base of users to contact their representatives, though some of those efforts may have backfired. And Shou Chew, TikTok’s chief executive, is a co-chair for this spring’s Met Gala, where TikTok will be the lead sponsor.

TikTok started amplifying the stories of everyday Americans like Sister Monica Clare and Patriotic Kenny last year, through a campaign it calls TikTok Sparks Good. Much of that effort appeared to be aimed at conservative audiences. It spent an estimated $19 million on TV ads that appeared largely on news programs, especially Fox News, according to data from iSpot.tv, a TV measurement company. TikTok aired more than a dozen ads during Republican presidential debates or debate-related programming last year, the firm said. It is still running ads that promote creators from last year’s campaign.

“It’s such a classic tactic,” said Cait Lamberton, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “They’re taking an idea, putting it in the mouth of a human and allowing you to make a connection with that human.”

She added, “TikTok is framing itself as a brand that stands for freedom and democratization of communication and frankly a lot of values that most people feel quite comfortable with.”

One of TikTok’s newer TV ads was filmed last month when the company flew dozens of video creators to Washington to protest the House bill. The ad is narrated by creators and shows some holding signs saying, “TikTok changed my life for the better,” on the steps of the Capitol.

Trevor Boffone, a lecturer at the University of Houston with more than 300,000 followers on TikTok, is also in the ad, describing how the app made him a better teacher and connect with an audience well beyond his classroom.

He said that he had been to events full of TikTok creators who were into “doing fun, dancing stuff,” but that the group in Washington was “a radically different group of people.”

TikTok gathered “regular Americans with amazing stories about how the platform helped them with their mental health, their disabilities and different crises in their communities like wildfire and even open-heart surgery,” he said. “All these really important ways that this platform has created community in ways that lawmakers don’t know about.”

Mr. Boffone, 38, said the group’s liaisons at TikTok had urged the creators to speak with their senators about the bill. (Sister Monica Clare said she had written a letter opposing the bill to Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey. Mr. Boffone said he had not yet been able to get in touch with his representative.)

Creators were worried that even a divestiture of TikTok from ByteDance could “change the culture of the app,” he said.

“We’ve seen what happened with Twitter and how Twitter is a shell of what it once was,” Mr. Boffone said. “Congress should be looking at comprehensive data security and legislation around social media and digital platforms that looks at Meta, that looks at Google.”

Americans are likely to see other advertisements about TikTok as outside groups also seize on the bill.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which has viewed the legislation as a threat to First Amendment rights, last month ran Facebook and Instagram ads that linked to a letter of opposition for people to send to their senators. A spokeswoman for the organization said it did not have a formal partnership or fund-raising relationship with TikTok or ByteDance.

Proponents of the bill are also running ads. Newly formed nonprofit groups led by conservatives, whose backers are unclear, have been airing TV commercials and placing advertisements on social media.

One of those groups, the American Parents Coalition, is led by Alleigh Marré, the founder of a public relations firm and a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services in the Trump administration. She promised “a seven-figure awareness campaign” called “TikTok Is Poison” in a March 20 news release.

Another group, State Armor Action, is led by Michael Lucci, a former policy adviser to a Republican governor in Illinois and a former Trump appointee to a Federal Labor Relations Authority panel. The group announced a multimillion-dollar ad campaign targeting TikTok on March 20 as well.

Ms. Marré said her group’s TikTok effort was its first campaign but declined to share information about its financial backers. Mr. Lucci also declined to identify his group’s donors but said he believed that TikTok “needs to be divested to American ownership.”

The intensity of the battle has hit home for Sister Monica Clare. She was delighted when her commercial began airing, she said, but was soon surprised to receive hate mail and even a few angry phone calls.

“It was this rush of ‘Oh, so exciting’ and then ‘Oh, what a bummer,’” she said. “It was really from people who were committed to the idea that China is spying on us through TikTok, from people who probably never used social media in their lives.”

She said that she was hopeful that TikTok’s marketing efforts, including the ad, would help send a different message about the app. (The company made a $500 donation to her convent in Mendham, N.J., for her participation, she said.)

“There’s a huge community of people doing good on TikTok,” she said.

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