Advertising industry trade body joins calls for changes to political ad regulation

This site has long argued that rules around political advertising need to change and be brought up-to-date.

The main reason is that in the digital age, more parties and groups, are making more ads, more quickly; but widespread visibility of those ads has decreased, due to micro-targeting.

This means that one of the most important safeguards against the spread of disinformation around elections has been undermined.

There are three changes to the current system that this site advocates for:

1/ A requirement for registered political groups and parties to publish the universe of advertising they are using, so that the public can see who is being promised what.

2/ A system for pre-clearance of factual claims used by registered political groups and parties in political advertising.

3/ A requirement for registered political groups and parties to include an ‘imprint’ – some wording as to who is responsible for the ads – on digital communications in the same way as is required of print media.

Yesterday the advertising industry trade organisation, the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA), announced that they were asking the Electoral Commission to implement the first of these measures and called for a moratorium on micro-targeting until this transparency is achieved.

IPA President Sarah Golding said: “Politics relies on the public square – on open, collective debate. We, however, believe micro-targeted political ads circumvent this. Very small numbers of voters can be targeted with specific messages that exist online only briefly. In the absence of regulation we believe this almost hidden form of political communication is vulnerable to abuse.”

Facebook have said that they will be implementing a system to enable such transparency for political ads running on their platform. But as Facebook don’t (yet) have a monopoly on online paid media space, their action is not enough to restore faith in the whole system.

The current rules cause problems for democracy because:

  • False claims made during campaigns reduce the moral authority of the result.
  • Untruthful assertions in political advertising perpetuates voters’ lack of trust in politics more generally.
  • Lies from one political group dilute the contentions of every political group (even ones that tell the truth) and debase the campaign discourse.

And the current system causes problems for the advertising industry:

  • It brings advertising generally into disrepute as the public might fairly assume that commercial messages are similarly unscrupulous (when there is in fact a rigorous system of self-regulation).
  • It puts media owners in a difficult position when there’s public outcry about the content of political ads; if media owners refuse to run political advertising they risk infringing on freedom of speech legislation – so they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

Given the plethora of benefits to the advertising industry and democracy more generally, the IPA’s decision to join the campaign to change electoral laws is very welcome news indeed.

1 Comment

  1. During my time in the industry I failed several times to persuade the key organisations to include political advertising within the ASA’s remit. This excellent article adds contemporary media factors to make a much more forceful argument. I’m delighted that Sarah Golding, the current President of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) has proposed the moratorium. This will create the room for a thorough debate of these complex issues. The mainstream advertising self and co-regulatory system can not be allowed to be weakened by unfettered micro-targeted political advertising.

    Hamish Pringle, ex Director General, IPA, Council Member ASA, Advertising Association Executive Committee, Board Member ASBOF & BASBOF, and Board Member EACA.

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