TV and Radio Advertising Basics
Broadcasters sell air time to advertisers to earn revenue. TV broadcasters depend mainly on advertising revenue, with these exceptions:
- CBC gets most of its operating funds from Parliament;
- public educational television services get most of their funds from provincial governments;
- Discretionary services get about half their revenues from a part of the fee subscribers pay to their distributors;
- On-demand services are financed entirely through subscription fees and per-transaction fees;
- On-demand undertakings are only permitted to advertise in programming under special circumstances which are detailed in their conditions of licence (see condition of licence 14 set out in Appendix 3 to Broadcasting Regulatory Policy CRTC 2016-436).
Broadcasters don’t have to air commercial messages, public service announcements or advocacy ads. But during an election campaign, broadcasters must follow the policies set out for federal, provincial and municipal elections.
Limits to advertising time
- Discretionary services: a maximum of 12 minutes of national advertising per clock hour
- Mainstream sports services and national news services: an average of 12 minutes per hour over the broadcast day
- On-demand services: may only carry advertising under special circumstances
- Television stations: no limits
- Commercial AM and FM radio stations: no limits
- CBC radio networks: prohibited from carrying advertising except for programs that are available to networks only on a sponsored basis
These time limits don’t include: the promotion of Canadian programs, public service announcements, political ads, product placements within a TV program and virtual ads (i.e. they don’t include advertisements superimposed over a program).
Advertising on community-based television and radio
There are also limits on the amount of time that community-based television and radio services can air commercials:
- Cable community channels: don’t carry commercial advertising, but can air sponsorships and contra advertising.
- Community-based, low power TV and digital services: a maximum of 12 minutes of local advertising per clock hour
- Campus radio stations: 504 minutes per week
- Community radio stations: no limits
For more information, consult the Policy framework for local and community television (Broadcasting Regulatory Policy CRTC 2016-224) and the Campus and community radio policy (Broadcasting Regulatory Policy CRTC 2010-499).
Content of advertisements
The CRTC doesn’t directly regulate advertising content, except advertising to children and alcohol ads.
Children's advertising includes:
- any paid commercial message carried during children’s programming
- any commercial message that’s directed to children (defined as those under 12 years of age), whether it’s during children’s programming or not
Broadcasters must adhere to the Broadcast Code for Advertising to Children published by the Canadian Association of Broadcasters in cooperation with Advertising Standards Canada.
In Quebec, commercial advertising aimed at persons younger than 13 is generally prohibited. See the Office de la protection du consommateur.
Advertising clearance is the process of previewing commercials to make sure they meet applicable standards. Advertising Standards Canada provides the service, but clearance is only mandatory for children’s advertising.
In its Broadcasting Regulatory Policy CRTC 2016-436, the CRTC issued standard requirements for television stations, discretionary services and on-demand services. One of these requirements states that television stations and discretionary services must ensure that advertising, sponsor messages and English- and French-language promotions are closed captioned. The CRTC also expects on-demand services to do the same.
Advertising for specific products
Broadcasters can advertise alcoholic beverages, but must follow the Code for Broadcast Advertising of Alcoholic Beverages (Public Notice CRTC 1996-108).
Drugs, medications and condoms
Health Canada has standards for advertising these products.
Health Canada is responsible for the Tobacco and Vaping Products Act and its associated regulations.
Radio and TV broadcasters must follow restrictions set out in the Act and the Vaping Products Promotion Regulations, which prohibit advertising vaping products to young persons.
Read this backgrounder to learn more about how the regulations are protecting Canadian youth.
In Quebec, under provincial law, radio and TV broadcasters cannot advertise vaping products. Contact the Tobacco Control Directorate to find out more about vaping compliance in your region.
The Cannabis Act specifies a number of prohibitions related to the promotion of cannabis, cannabis accessories and services related to cannabis.
Radio and TV broadcasters can’t advertise tobacco products. Health Canada is responsible for Tobacco Control.
For questions about advertising of tobacco products, contact the Tobacco Control Directorate Canada.
There are also consumer safeguards to protect consumers from unforeseen charges.
Types of ads
The Commission clarified its definition of “advertising material” for the purpose of certifying Canadian programs in Information Bulletin CRTC 2017-434, which indicates that infomercials and other types of advertising material are excluded from the certification of Canadian programs. This bulletin also refers to the definitions of “advertising material” and “advertising message” set out in the Discretionary Services Regulations and the Television Broadcasting Regulations, 1987.
A TV infomercial combines entertainment or information with the sale or promotion of goods or services in a program that’s more than 12 minutes long. Broadcasters must clearly inform viewers that infomercials are paid commercial advertising.
On commercial radio stations, an advertisement that’s more than 3 minutes long must be identified as a paid commercial, by clear and prominent announcements, before and after the segments. The announcement must be repeated when the program breaks, and before returning to the program.
Local promotions on US channels
You may see a promotion for a Canadian show on a US TV station. Both US and Canadian stations set aside some advertising time (1 to 2 minutes per hour) for “local availabilities.” Distributors use this time for their own purposes, and Canadian distributors air promotions for Canadian broadcasting services.
Virtual ads during TV sports programs
Virtual advertising places advertising within a TV program, not during a normal commercial break. Virtual ads are often used for large sports events.
You may see a computer graphic of an advertiser’s name in the scene, or you could see a computer-created "virtual" billboard for TV audiences in a place where a real billboard might appear.
Sponsorships and contra advertising
A sponsorship is when a community program acknowledges that it has received direct financial assistance. Contra advertising is when a community program acknowledges that it has received free goods or services to use in connection with producing the program.
False and misleading ads
Broadcasters must meet the Canadian Association of Broadcasters’ Code of Ethics on advertising. If you think an ad is false or misleading, contact Advertising Standards Canada or the Competition Bureau at Industry Canada.
Questions and complaints
If you have a question or complaint about advertising, go to How to make a broadcasting complaint.
- OTA television policy (Public Notice 2007-53)
- Local Availabilities policy (Public Notice CRTC 2006-69)
- Simultaneous Programming Service Deletion and Substitution Regulations
- Loud TV Commercials
- Super Bowl TV commercials – why are the ads different?
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