Electoral Commission proposals to reform political advertising don’t go far enough

Yesterday the Electoral Commission published their first report into spending around general election 2017, which included a series of suggested reforms aimed at providing further transparency in relation to political campaigning. Whilst they are to be welcomed, the recent self-regulatory action of tech platforms is far more significant and there’s still plenty more to do.

Electoral law sets out rules that apply to candidates, political parties and non-party campaigners who are aiming to influence the outcome of elections in the UK.

These rules aim to limit spending, provide transparency for voters about the sources of funding and provide clarity on what campaigning activity the money pays for.

The Electoral Commission – amongst other things – provides guidance on the rules, helps enforce adherence to the rules and publishes reports relating to the rules.

A problem facing the enforcement of these rules since social media became a dominant force in society is the fact that the ability to know which political ads are being run – and by whom – has been severely curtailed.

During recent elections and referenda political advertisers could run ads targeted at specific groups and be fairly confident of evading scrutiny of their messaging (provided that no pesky journalists were inadvertently served the ad) or how much was spent saying it. This social media advertising product is known as a ‘dark ad’.

I could have run £275,000 worth of political advertising on social media during the last general election – using money that was given to me by a shady Russian oligarch – and there’s a good chance that the Electoral Commission would be none the wiser.

People who saw my ads would have no idea that it was me who ran it, or who gave me the money to pay for it, and if they didn’t think the content was true, there was no regulatory body that they could report it to.

It’s no surprise then that shady practices have begun to develop.

Some groups, such as Vote Leave and Leave.EU, have been accused of accepting in-kind donations from people and companies outside the UK. This is illegal as political parties and campaigners in the UK are only allowed to accept domestic donations.

And some foreign states have been accused of meddling in elections by running ad campaigns; it is now proven for example that Russian-sponsored campaigns were seen by tens of millions of voters in the USA during their 2016 general election.

Did this happen during recent elections and referenda in the UK? Neither the Electoral Commission nor Parliament have any real way of knowing (but it would be very unusual, given events in France, Germany and the USA if it hadn’t).

If it did, it’s a pretty sizeable breach of our democracy and a reason to further regulate political advertising.

Yesterday the Electoral Commission published their first report into spending around general election 2017, which included a series of suggested reforms aimed at providing further transparency on sources of income and on how much money was spent and on which activities.

One suggestion is to require campaigners 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.

They also want a change in the way campaigners submit their expenditure so that there’s more clarity on where money is being spent. Currently there’s one umbrella category for all advertising; the Electoral Commission would like to know in future what was spent on social media, search, billboards etc… without having to sift through a load of receipts.

And the Electoral Commission would like improved punitive powers; the current limit on fines that can be issued is £20,000, which is a drop in the ocean for mainstream political parties who typically spend many millions of pounds on campaigning.

Whilst these are all good and reasonable suggestions that should certainly be adopted, there is nothing which would enable them to monitor bad actors that use the anonymity of the internet to run campaigns.

Fortunately for the Electoral Commission, the tech platforms have stepped in and self-regulated.

Facebook have stated that they are ending ‘dark ads’; going forwards people will be able to see all the ads a Page is running on Facebook, whether or not the person viewing is in the intended target audience for the ad.  They are also promising to create an archive of election related ads so that it’s easier for journalists and campaigners to hold sponsors of ads to account. Twitter have also promised similar measures.

This change will make a much bigger difference than any of the aforementioned reforms, as it will help provide transparency around the universe of messaging and targeting being used by campaigners.

Getting the platforms to make the changes wasn’t easy. It took US Senators to propose a bill called the “Honest Ads Act” and for Facebook, Twitter and Google’s senior executives to be hauled in front of a Congressional hearing.

We are the fortunate beneficiaries of the fact that the US government have taken the issue seriously; it’s a big step forwards for holding those who seek to influence elections using social networks to account.

The final and hugely important step to improving trust in political campaigns will be to create a system for pre-clearance of factual claims being made by political parties.

Until people have the confidence that facts and figures used to justify promises and attacks are independently fact-checked, there will be skepticism from the public about the truthfulness of campaigns and false information will continue to be able to affect the narrative of elections.

The Electoral Commission in their report reiterated the fact that they “do not regulate the content of political campaign messages or advertisements, including mis-information” and nor are they “seeking an extension to our remit to include these issues”.

The Electoral Commission’s fear is that if they are required to act as a fact-checker or “truth commission” for political advertising, they risk damaging their reputation for regulating political finance.

It’s an understandable position, but it’s a shame that they haven’t seen fit to include the creation of a body that could do so as part of their recommendations. It’s a glaring omission.

Social media, segmentation and political advertising

This week there have been three brilliant articles which give perspectives on political segmentation and running effective election campaigns using social media platforms.

Cambridge Analytica CEO talks to TechCrunch

Alexander Nix - politics elections social media segmentation targeting cambridge analytica

Alexander Nix, CEO of infamous advertising / technology firm Cambridge Analytics, gave a 50 minute interview to TechCrunch.  The full transcript is available as well as a short summary.

It’s a wide ranging discussion but the reader is left with many more clues as to the firm’s methodology and approach to communications.

Professor Mark Ritson on Facebook’s political segmentation

Facebook US 2016 political segmentation

Marketing professor Mark Ritson gives a brilliant ‘how to’ in political segmentation using Facebook’s US Presidential ‘16 work as a case study.  This guy really knows his onions. The first step to any political campaign is segmenting the electorate so if your business is winning elections this guide is worth bookmarking.

The Economist on how to game the attention economy

The Economist social media threat to democracy attention economy

The Economist have done a brilliant briefing on social media and politics.  It looks at the different ways in which social media is impacting politics but, more usefully for political practitioners, it gives a very savvy perspective on the sort of content that can thrive in the ‘attention economy’.

Who should regulate political advertising?

This week I was asked by Campaign, a leading marketing trade publisher, as to whether the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) should regulate political advertising.

As regular readers will know, much to my chagrin, political advertising remains completely unregulated in the UK. Political campaigns can say or claim anything they want without fear of legal or financial reprimand.

Below is my 100 word response and you can read the thoughts of other members of the advertising industry here:

Political advertising needs regulating.

More parties and groups, are making more ads, more quickly.

But widespread visibility of those ads has decreased, along with other safeguards against the spread of disinformation.

Regulation would inevitably generate controversy.

Requiring the ASA to repeatedly weather such storms risks compromising their good reputation for regulating commercial advertising.

Both the Election Committee of Ofcom and the Electoral Commission are better placed.

A system for pre-clearance of factual claims and transparency around the universe of messaging being used by parties are two measures that would help restore trust in political campaigns.

Follow us on Instagram

For those election obsessives who want to see all the best political advertisements with minimal effort, you can now follow politicaladvertising.co.uk on Instagram.

The Instagram channel will be a regular feed of images and videos to enable you to stay up to date with campaigns from around the world.

This site will continue to be the location for more in-depth analysis and comment, with all articles also being shared to our Facebook page (which you can ‘like’ here) so that you don’t have to leave your newsfeed to find the latest posts.

The future of political campaigning: data, strategies and digital tools

On Friday I attended CampaignTech Europe 2017, a conference focused on giving attendees a “how to” in running data-driven, innovative and effective political campaigns.

The day featured presentations from expert practitioners – from across the world – who have shaped how political campaigns use data and digital tools to persuade and motivate voters.

The event was produced by Campaigns & Elections, a publishing and events group which has been serving the political campaign industry since 1980.

It took place in the centre of Berlin at a suitably trendy venue called ‘The Factory’. It was attended by people representing brands, political parties, ad agencies, pollsters and campaigning organisations, all of whom were eager to learn about the cutting-edge tools, tactics and techniques used by the political consulting profession.

The conference was opened by Jochen König & Juri Schnöller, who are Co-Founders of Cosmonauts & Kings, a Berlin based start-up for data-driven political communication and campaigning.

They setup the event brilliantly by painting a picture of the challenges facing organisations seeking to form and change public opinion.

They highlighted the three biggest digitally-enabled blocks to directing a public dialogue as the filter bubble, fake news and social bots.  They also pointed to other societal factors such as erosion of public trust in institutions, rising anxiety and information overload as issues that campaigners have to deal with.

They went on to argue that it is possible to overcome all the challenges by implementing the right strategic approach and by using data effectively, both summarised in the charts below.

New political strategies
A new approach to political campaigning
New process for political campaigns
A data-driven process
The Cosmonauts & Kings then concluded by challenging the remaining speakers to answer the three pervasive questions that face all campaigning organisations:

  1. How do you create a data-driven mind-set?
  2. How do you create media moments, momentum and movements?
  3. How do you empower supporters and voters, using data?

Next up was Marcus Roberts, International Director of YouGov who talked about the future of polling.  Amongst a number of provocative and interesting points, he revealed his belief that precinct-level social bots peddling fake news in battleground states in the USA were a significant factor in the 2016 result; this might sound like baseless conspiracy, but given that he wasn’t the first expert of the day, nor the last, to point to the role of this technology it’s certainly a controversial technology that we will all have to pay much more attention to going forwards.

He also defended the accuracy of national level polls during the 2016 Presidential election, whilst accepting there was more to do on state-level polling, and encouraged attendees who had misgivings about the industry to read the evaluation of 2016 election polls produced by the American Association for Public Opinion Research.

The following presentation was by Arun Chaudhary who, prior to founding his agency Revolution Messaging, had a variety of impressive roles including being Obama’s New Media Road Director during the 2008 campaign; his content producing skills then led to Chaudhary being appointed the first Official White House Videographer by the administration.

A filmmaker by trade, Chaudhary outlined the importance of a simple, consistent and motivating narrative; he argued that narratives – containing facts and events – are retained longer than rational information, are difficult to change once lodged and can be executed in a number of different ways without getting tired.

He brilliantly summarised a number of recent successful political narratives.

He condensed Obama’s narrative to “from rootless to rooted”; the story – a twist on the classic American Dream – told of a man who had grown up without a stable family, or a father in the house, or a community to be part of and went on to achieve great things and became a symbol of achievement, familial stability and success.

Chaudhary went on to describe Bernie Sanders’ story as being someone who is unfailing consistent and “gives a shit about you” and Donald Trump’s narrative as “stop laughing at us”.

Chaudhary said the similarity between Trump’s underlining narrative and that of the Brexiteers was uncanny; when Trump and Farage met up in November to celebrate their collective victories, their narratives reached a joint conclusion “look who’s laughing now.”

As well as having a narrative he outlined the importance of telling it consistently, but also constantly; he said that “nature abhors a vacuum and if you’re not telling your story, then somebody else will”.

Chaudhary then suggested that there was now a new political divide which is no longer a left to right wing access but is instead a doughnut with “elites” on the inside and “ordinary people” on the outside.

He argued that those who campaign only on issues that the elite care about, without capturing the imaginations of ordinary people, can expect to be rebuffed at the ballot box. He pointed at significant numbers of voters in key USA swing states who voted for George W Bush in ’04, Obama in ’08 and ’12 and Trump in ’16 as evidence.

Elites vs ordinary people

If you buy this argument, it’s easy to view both May and Corbyn’s 2017 UK general election campaigns as essentially competing for the voters that cast their ballots for Labour in 2010, UKIP in ’15 and Leave in the referendum.

Chaudhary closed by asserting his belief that great political communication is about finding a way to give a sense of dignity to the people that you are trying to persuade.  He didn’t expand on the concept particularly, but it felt quite profound at the time.

Martin Radjaby-Rasset, Head of Communication for the Green Party in Austria during Alexander Van der Bellen’s successful Presidential bid against the far right Norbert Hofer, talked through the campaign’s case study.

Themes included the importance of political cross-dressing to appeal to those beyond your base, how to build a brand around a candidate using image-making and the need to manage journalists effectively in order to maintain your narrative (“keep them busy, or else they will keep you busy”).

The session that I was most excited about in advance of the conference was The Predictive Power of Data: Modelling and Mobilisation.  It was moderated by Ralf Güldenzopf – Head of Political Communications at Konrad-Adenauer Stiftung and the speakers were: Bryan Whitaker – Chief Innovation Officer at Target Smart, Chris Young – National Field Director at the Republican National Committee and Guillaume Liegey – CEO of Liegey Muller Pons.

The discussion was very discursive around the topic of how to use data effectively in a campaign, but at its most simple, the panel agreed that data is fundamental to understanding who to target, what to say and for tracking whether your campaign is working.

They got into the reeds of the process of gathering useful data and using it, which I sensed was exactly what everyone was hoping for.

election segmentation data driven political campaign.png
Using research & data to select voters to target and make communications more relevant
Once a campaign has decided the groups of voters on which they want to focus their resource and have ascertained the messages most likely to be persuasive to them, they are used – amongst other things – in targeted advertising, included in carefully directed emails and given to activists to use when knocking on doors.

The panel told attendees that supporters pounding the streets now carry smart devices which dynamically load the script that is most likely to persuade the person that answers the door.  The data can ascertain seemingly unimportant things such as the sort of TV shows they’re likely to watch – as well as their probable views on a range of issues – and the nature of the script is then adapted to suit.

Jim Walsh, founder of DSPolitical – America’s leading voter targeting digital ad network for Democrats – went into further detail in a session on ‘The future of ad targeting’.

Walsh believes that, at a minimum, a campaign should have three voter segments: core supporters who are very likely to vote, those who are persuadable that are very likely to vote and strong supporters who are less likely to vote.

These three segments require very distinct types of messages in order to win their vote; for example, using “herding” strategies (or ‘shaming’) for supporters who are less likely to vote is the best way to turn them out.

When asked whether or not there was a limit to the number of segments a campaign should create, his response was that it’s worth segmenting until the cost of increasing the relevance of communications shows diminishing returns.  Given that artificial intelligence will soon be able to create a massive (infinite?) number of segments and messages, the revolution in political communication will soon take another big step forwards.

He argued that in order to persuade someone to support a candidate or cause the voter needs to be targeted with, on average – per month – around 40-60 online display impressions and 10-15 unskippable pre-roll films.

Another internet-enabled communication innovation which is being weaponised – in the literal sense of the term – was explained by John McTernan, Head of International Political at Penn Schoen Berland (and former Director of Political Operations to Prime Minister Tony Blair ’05 -’07).

McTernan used a document on ‘information operations’ released by Facebook in April 2017 to make the case that state actors (read: Russia) have been using digital channels to conduct information wars against rival countries and governments.

It was equal parts fascinating and jaw-droppingly worrying.

He outlined three genres of misinformation peddled by states conducting information wars, each designed to destabilise rival countries and sow the sort of division that might weaken them:

Information wars - types of tactics used
Three tactics used in information wars
For those in the audience who doubted the reality of such threats, McTernan had an anecdote from the recent French Presidential election:

It’s common knowledge that in the 48-hours before France headed for the polls and ‘official campaigning’ was suspended – in accordance with electoral legislation – the front runner, and opponent of Russian-backed Marine Le Pen, Emanuel Macron and his party were subject to a massive hack.

Private emails and documents were dumped on wikileaks, no doubt in the hope that it would turn into a media frenzy that might do enough to put LePen into power.

What is less well known is that Macron and his team – having seen the interference in the USA six months prior – had anticipated such an attack. His team had created a number of fake email accounts and servers which, for weeks and months, had been busy creating and sending fake correspondence and documentation.

Macron’s team briefed the media that they had done so in anticipation of a (likely Russian-state-sponsored) hack and warned them that anything gleaned from the data dump was very likely to be fake.

When the campaign was indeed hacked and the information was shared online, journalists knew that they couldn’t be sure if the information was faked or real and so were unable to report on it in a way that could damage Macron’s electoral fortunes.

There were other valuable sessions that I haven’t covered here for the sake of (relative) brevity, but full details of the agenda of the day are available below.

It was a fantastic event and huge thanks must go to the organisers Shane D’Aprile and Shane Greer. Hopefully this event won’t be the last of it’s kind, as well the first, in Europe.





9:50 – 10:05

Opening Presentation

Jochen König & Juri Schnöller – Co-Founders, Cosmonauts & Kings


10:05 – 10:30

The Future of Polling

Marcus Roberts – International Director, YouGov


10:30 – 11:00

Digital Organizing In the Trump Era

Arun Chaudhary – Co-Founder, Revolution Messaging


11:00 – 11:30

A Case-Study in Campaigning – How Van der Bellen won the Austrian Presidency

Martin Radjaby-Rasset – Managing Director,Jung von Matt/Donau Werbeagentur


11:30 – 12:15

Digital Campaigning: Recent Lessons from Across Europe


Shane Greer – Co-Publisher, Campaigns & Elections


Kiki Bakker – National Field Director, VVD

Marcus Roberts – International Director, YouGov


12:15 – 13:15



13:15 – 14:00

The Predictive Power of Data: Modeling and Mobilization


Ralf Güldenzopf -Head of Political Communications, Konrad-Adenauer Stiftung


Bryan Whitaker -Chief Innovation Officer, Target Smart

Chris Young- National Field Director, Republican National Committee

Guillaume Liegey -Co-Founder & CEO, Liegey Muller Pons


14:00 – 14:30

Virtual Reality, 360 Video and What It Means for Campaigners

Jakob Ohlsson – Founder, Reform Act


14:30 – 15:00

The Future of Ad Targeting

Jim Walsh – Founder, DSPolitical


15:00 – 15:25

“Click Here”: The Cyber Threat to Modern Day Democracy

John McTernan – SVP/Head of International Political, Penn Schoen Berland


15:25 – 15:35

Afternoon Break


15:35 – 16:00

Creating, Organizing & Sustaining a Grassroots Movement Online

Jeannette Gusko – Communications Director DACH, Change.org


16:00 – 16:30

Role of Digital In the 2017 German Elections

Frank Stauss – CEO, BUTTER

Get the frack on with it

There have been a number of headlines this week about the news that oil and gas firm Cuadrilla reported Friends of the Earth to the ASA for misleading claims in their anti-fracking advertising.

I’ve written a piece which argues that the fact the ASA have demonstrated they are capable of dealing with a thorny political issue like fracking is evidence to suggest that regulating election advertising is far from impossible.

You can read it here.

Elections and brands: gimmick or gold mine

Last week I wrote an article for BBDO KNOWS, a planning resource for the BBDO network, which I’m reproducing here with their permission.  BBDO KNOWS offers thinking, strategy, insights and inspiration on key categories, key themes and consumer segments. If you are interested in learning more about the way BBDO thinks please contact Melanie Norris, Global Planning Director, norrism@bbdoknows.com.

This week saw the US head to the polls to choose their next president and, as ever, there were plenty of brands trying to get a share of the attention.

Given the dwindling number of universal moments in culture, it’s unsurprising. For brands that would struggle to authentically associate themselves with Back-to-School or Halloween, the US Presidential election provides an alternative opportunity for a pre-Christmas communications push.

Here we look at three tactics that brands have used to get involved in the election, and who has done it well.


The most common tactic used by brands trying to associate themselves with an election is the ‘Newsjack’. A Newsjack refers to the practice of a brand anticipating a story that journalists will already be writing and creating a piece of content that will fit seamlessly into the story.

The run up to the election day will always see vast numbers of articles on the theme of “America is going election-crazy”, and this year has proved no different; these stories look at the unusual, extreme and hilarious things that people, neighbourhoods and (crucially, for PR purposes) brands are doing to celebrate the festival of democracy that is polling day.

It’s the one time of year where an Italian restaurant has a chance of generating earned media by emailing a picture editor a photo of a pizza that’s looks like a politician.

A Newsjack tends to generate the most short-lived type of fame, but given the relatively small amount of effort that is required on the part of brands to achieve it, it can often pass the cost-benefit analysis required to run the campaign.


Similar to a Newsjack, but requiring greater effort, is the election-related sales promotion. An example of this is 7-Eleven’s 7Election campaign where they offered customers ordering an XL Stay-Hot drink a choice between a red and blue cup to represent Trump or Clinton. These were then tallied and used to predict the result of the election.

The ambition behind a sales promotion like this is simply to increase the relevance of a product during this highly debated period, and (hopefully) give a spike to trade.

Election-related sales promotions however rarely have any effect on market share, as they tend to bring in people who were already in the market for a product and any spike begins to decay when the polls close and the time-limited promotion concludes.


The election-related activity that will arguably do most for a brand’s longer term market share is the sort which is targeted at the majority of the population (buyers and non-buyers alike), using mass media, which conveys a message in an emotional way.

This is very hard to do around an election. Emotions relating to politics are fairly volatile (to put it lightly) and any brand trying to take advantage of, or capitalise on these feelings, runs the risk of alienating or upsetting large numbers of people.

However, one brand who has managed to get it right this year is Audi, the automotive manufacturer, who premiered a spot – ‘Duel’ – during the first live televised debate. It showed a man and woman seemingly fighting to the death over something relating to the Presidential election.

It delivered a message about the desirability of the RS7 in a high-octane, awe-inspiring, adrenaline-pumping way that took emotions the audience would have already been feeling about the election and channeled them into the Audi brand. By hijacking the conversation already happening around the debate, Audi was able to generate earned media without alienating either side.


Whether you want a quick blast of publicity, a spike in sales or an increase in long-term brand value, there are ways of achieving it around election time. And, given that major elections are as certain to capture the nation’s imagination as holiday seasons and Super Bowls, it is worth brands thinking about how they could take advantage the next time the country heads to the polls.