It’s time to regulate political advertising

restore truthful politics - regulate political advertising change

A petition which calls for the regulation of political advertising has gathered 100,000+ signatures in the 4 days since it launched.

The petition was posted, by John Babarinde from Eastbourne, in response to some of the political advertising that ran during the EU referendum which he felt was clearly and deliberately misleading.

100,000 signatures might not seem like a vast number, but take it from someone who spends too much time pouring over the visitor statistics of a niche political advertising blog – this is significant!

Whenever I bore on about the need to regulate political advertising the reaction is usually along the lines of “ok maybe there’s not specific legislation, but I’m sure there’s a parliamentary committee or division of Ofcom (or something) that keeps an eye on these things”.

So to convince you of the lack of restriction, let me quote the Electoral Commission’s website on the issue of the regulation of the content of political campaigns’ materials and election broadcasts:

“In general, political campaign material in the UK is not regulated, and it is a matter for voters to decide on the basis of such material whether they consider it accurate or not. This includes the design of the material.

There is one exception to this, which is making or publishing a false statement of fact in relation to a candidate’s personal character or conduct (not their political views or conduct), unless there are reasonable grounds to believe the statement is true. The Commission does not regulate this rule however, and any allegations should be made to the police.

The Advertising Standards Authority regulates advertising, but non-broadcast political material whose principal function is to influence voters is exempt from its remit.”

In short: if you want to complain about the content of a campaign’s advertising you can only do so with your vote at the ballot box (or your chuntering on social media).

The current lack of regulation means that campaigns are free to make wild and unsubstantiated claims, such as Vote Leave’s headline slogan which promised £350 million worth of savings from the public purse if the UK voted to leave the EU.

The extent to which Vote Leave were aware that the £350 million claim was untrue prior to polling day can be seen when Matthew Elliot, CEO of Vote Leave, appeared before the House of Parliament Treasury Committee on 9th May (watch here from 14:45:20).  His justification for the figure is paper-thin and so poorly argued that it’s as close as you can get to an acknowledgement that it’s a fabrication.

And Chris Grayling MP, a leading member of the Vote Leave campaign, only a few days after the conclusion of the referendum, admitted that the figure was only “an aspiration”.

The Remain campaign aren’t remotely exempt from criticism.  Apart from anything else, the name of the official campaign – Britain Stronger in Europe – is misleading as the referendum was about European Union membership and not the question of whether the country would remain part of Europe.

The decision by Remain to continually refer to remaining in ‘Europe’ and not the ‘EU’ was deliberate and designed to escalate the discussion from one around a political and economic union to one of cultural identity.

There are vast numbers of reasons for legislating on political advertising, but my top five (each of which could be an essay in themselves) are as follows:

  1. False claims made during the campaign reduce the moral authority of the result.
  1. Untruthful assertions in political advertising perpetuates voters’ lack of trust in politics more generally.
  1. Lies from one political group dilutes the contentions of every political group (even ones that tell the truth) and debase the campaign discourse.
  1. It brings advertising more generally into disrepute as the public might fairly assume that commercial messages are similarly unscrupulous (when they are in fact carefully regulated).
  1. It puts media owners in a difficult position when there’s public outcry about the content of political ads as they have to decide for themselves whether to drop the advertisement (risking infringing on freedom of speech legislation in doing so).

It was not always the case that political advertising was completely unregulated.  Until 1999 political advertising was covered by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for matters of ‘taste and decency’ and ‘the privacy of individuals’, but not ‘honesty’ and ‘truthful presentation’.

The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the body that writes the Advertising Code – decided that this ‘half-way-house’ arrangement wasn’t working, as partial regulation was leading to public confusion and was discrediting the standards held by commercial advertisers.

The CAP felt that either political advertising should conform to all of the ASA’s normal advertising standards or none.  A 2003 Electoral Commission report into the issue opted for ‘none’.

The ASA has a justifiable concern about ruling on political ads; as an undemocratic body it would face a legitimacy deficit when intervening in elections.  A previous ASA Director was quoted as saying:

“Can you imagine the situation if during the course of an election we are asked to adjudicate on an advertisement on a matter of truthfulness. Say it takes a week for us to judge on it and in the meantime the party making the false claim wins the election. Are we then to rule that they lied their way into power?”

Given the history of the issue, I don’t think for a moment it will be will be easy (or even possible) to create a perfect regulatory solution.  But the status quo, where the Electoral Commission, the ASA, the Houses of Parliament, Ofcom and any other body you might care to name refuse to take responsibility, is unacceptable.

I don’t advocate reducing political organisations’ ability to make powerful or controversial claims.  Nor am I subscriber to the belief that campaigns should be ‘positive’.  I’m not even suggesting that those elected should be held accountable to promises made in their advertising at election time.

It’s just very clear to me that there should be a formal process that enables citizens to challenge claims – often positioned as facts – made by political campaigns which they feel to be untrue or misleading.

To use a well-worn political advertising refrain: it’s time for a change.



Election campaigning: how to spend it

Benedict Pringle article in Campaign how to spend it

On Wednesday this week the Electoral Commission published the details of money spent by political parties on General Election 2015.  I’ve written an article analysing the relative merits of their expenditure for advertising industry trade magazine Campaign, which you can read here.

General Election 2015: review of the political posters

The 2015 general election race has been electric.  As neither of the main parties has managed to capture the majority of the public’s imagination, both Labour and the Conservatives have been unrelenting in their battle to take the lead.  And as there is a high likelihood that of one of the less significant parties  will end up winning a place in government, the Lib Dems, Greens, UKIP, SNP and Plaid Cymru have all had something to play for right up until the close of polls.

The political parties have used political advertising in all its forms to try and steer the media’s election narrative, fire-up their own supporters, interfere with the oppositions’ strategies and influence undecided voters.

The digital campaigns – largely email-led – have increased in sophistication and effectivess.  And for the first time we have seen political parties, particularly the Conservatives, spending decent sums of money on promoting Facebook videos and buying YouTube pre-roll adverising.

However the most romantic and iconic form  of political advertising in Britain remains the poster.

Regardless of whether the posters are plastered across marginal consitutiences – as the Conservatives have done this time around – or whether they’re deployed as giant, full colour press-releases at campaign events, the media and the public can’t help but discuss them.

There’s no space for bluff and bluster in a poster.  The requirement for parties to distill and refine their message to fit in a 48-sheet means that a quick survey of any elections’ posters will tell you everything you need to know about the battle that has taken place.

Let’s see what they had to say this time around.

The SNP Boogeyman

Miliband in Salmond Pocket Conservative Party poster

In every election there are one or two truly iconic images that live long in our political memories.  I strongly suspect this poster, which shows the Labour Party leader Ed Miliband sitting in the top pocket of former SNP leader Alex Salmond, will be the one we’re talking about for years to come.

What makes the poster so impressive is that they have managed to bring to life the possibility that a vote for Labour could help usher the SNP into Downing St without even using a headline.

In one foul swoop it damned Miliband’s leadership credentials, excited the SNP activist base in Scotland and distracted Labour from their NHS-led campaign and forced them onto the back foot.

The Battle for the NHS

Labour poster - recruit more nurses

Labour’s advertising in 2015 centred squarely on the NHS; it was the 2nd most salient issue amongst the public (after immigration) and as Labour were seen as the most credible party to defend it the campaign chose itself.

This execution was the best of a bad bunch.

The image of thousands of nurse-style fob watches is fairly eye-catching and the sub-header announcing that applications for these new jobs will open the day after polling day is a clever piece of copywriting.

The strapline “It’s time to care. It’s time for a Labour government” also neatly encapsulates their wider pitch to the electorate.

Spot the difference

Green Party spot the difference end of page 3 sun newspaper

In late January 2015 The Sun Newspaper, in a slightly bizarre PR stunt, encouraged the nation to believe that they had decided to bring an end to featuring topless glamour models on its Page 3 (something which later turned out not to be the case).

The Green Party capitalised on the moment to highlight the fact that their party had been campaigning to end the sexist behaviour of the publisher for time by running this ‘spot the difference’ execution.

The advert shows the leaders of Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems and UKIP all sycophantically lining up to take part in The Sun Newspapers launch of their coverage of the 2014 World Cup; it implies the leaders were de-facto endorsing the chauvinistic practice.

This is placed in stark contrast to Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP, who is pictured wearing a t-shirt campaigning against the Sun’s daily publication of partially naked girls.

This activity, placing the Green Party as the anti-Westminster option and a champion of women, helped to stimulate a surge of new membership recruits and jump in the polls.

Backing our Boys


UKIP’s audience are largely blue-collar, elderly, white and male voters.  UKIP have salience amongst groups who feel forgotten by modern Britain and worry about the nation’s reduced global status; this emotive poster outlining UKIP’s policy of improved provision for the military resonated strongly with such people.

The visual of a soldier begging for money using a helmet is very provocative and the quietly raging tone of the headline encapsulates the sentiment that UKIP’s disgruntled supporters feel towards the mainstream parties.

Stuck in the middle without a clue

Lib Dem Look left look right

The Liberal Democrats, having spent the last 5 years as the junior partner in a coalition with the Conservative Party, were in the deeply unenviable position of not being able to attack the record of the government or credibly lay claim to any of its successes.

Their only strategic option was to position themselves as a moderating force on both Labour and the Conservatives.  It’s a creatively baron proposition and the result has been some fairly dire advertising.

The Lib Dems have run a series of posters using the line: ‘look left, look right, then cross’; the above advert features Ed Balls and George Osborne, two giant and unpopular characters from Labour and the Conservatives respectively.

The “Ajockalypse”

SNP Let's lock the tories out of number 10

The “Ajockalypse” refers to the possible phenomenon of the SNP winning every single Westminster parliamentary seat in Scotland and this poster brilliantly summarises the pitch the SNP have been giving which makes it a very likely scenario.

Many people in Scotland felt badly affronted by the Conservative Party’s actions in the immediate aftermath of the independence referendum the previous year and the SNP have encouraged them to see the Westminster General Election as a chance to exact some revenge.  The transformation of the ‘0’ in No. 10 Downing St’s door into a lock is neat shortcut for that message.

Against All Austerity

Plaid Cymru will end austerity poster

Plaid Cymru have had the least impact of the 7 main political parties.  Their message didn’t permeate outside of Wales as the likelihood of the Welsh nationals influencing the final outcome was minimal.

Plaid Cymru used this illustrated style in the majority of its communications and whilst perfectly aesthetic, it’s not particularly arresting.  The edgy, blocky font and the handmade nature of the graphics gives the poster a nice sense of protest, but it’s not the sort of thing that’s going to make waves in Westminster.

Brands and election-themed gimmicks

Andrew Neil Benedict Pringle Daily Politics

Andrew Neil election gimmicks

Election themed cupcakes

Earlier today the BBC Daily Politics kindly invited me on to their show to discuss election-themed products and promotions.

You can watch here from 55.41, but the gist of what I said is as follows:

There’s 2 reasons why brands use election gimmicks.

The first is a tactic called Newsjacking and the second is a strategy around increasing relevance.

‘Newsjacking’ is about anticipating stories that journalists will already by writing and creating great content for them to use.

The Daily Politics programme I was on was a classic example.

The marketing departments and PR agencies of these companies knew media outlets would be running stories on the mad things brands are doing around election time and decided to try and earn their brand or product some coverage.

We were newsjacked.

The second reason brands do it is because there’s lots of research to suggest that ‘relevance’ is an important driver in people’s decision making.

It’s a slightly intangible thing and people don’t agree as to how it works exactly, but almost everyone agrees that it does work.

If your brand or product can seem ‘relevant’ to whatever else is going on in the consumer’s life, people seem to attach more value to you.

This is the reason why brands gather around big marquee moments in the year.  Whether it’s the World Cup, going Back to School, Christmas or Valentine’s Day.  The more relevant your brand can seem to an occasion the more likely it is people are going to choose you over the competition.

It gets consumers thinking “this product is for people like me”.

We see this a lot in politics.  A key driver in how people vote is how ‘relevant’ they think the party or candidate is to them.  It’s the reason why politicians put aside their expensive suits when they’re knocking on doors in their constituencies and instead don some dodgy chinos and Next Directory sweater.

Digital tactics in 2015 general election

FT article digital tactics in general election battle benedict pringle

Robert Cookson at The Financial Times has written a nice article on the digital aspect of the 2015 general election campaigns.

When I spoke to Robert I gave him my point of view that the scale of the paid-for digital campaigns in this election is unprecedented in the UK and that political parties – particularly the Conservatives – are getting around the ban on TV advertising by using YouTube and Facebook videos.

However, pre-roll isn’t in this instance the poor relation of TV.  Indeed, using paid-for online video is in many ways much better than TV as you can target internet users who display certain online behaviours or fit certain demographics. This allows parties to focus resources on the audiences and locations that are most likely to deliver them important votes.

As this is a political communication innovation I suspect there will be a gut instinct amongst some to try and contain or ban it.

This would be a mistake.

Advertising is an important way for political parties to communicate with voters.  Currently political parties have to overly rely on mass media outlets in order to disseminate their campaign messages which inevitably leads to distortion; the emergence of digital media has been an important shift in enabling politicians to communicate directly with the electorate and we should avoid any moves to curtail it.

However, as a quid pro quo, the political parties should agree to a new regulatory framework around all advertising in order to prevent the broadcasting of misleading or offensive information.  More detail on this can be found here.

Alternative election posters

Tories only care if you've got grey hair
Grey Vote, by Georgia Sutherland, BA graphic design, Camberwell College of Arts

The Guardian has asked art students to bring to life the ‘real’ 2015 general election by coming up with a new slogan for a political party or their own alternative political message.

The above poster by Georgia Sutherland was my favourite.  See the whole range here.

Celebrities and political campaigns: proceed with caution

Miliband and Brand

Typically in the final week or so of a general election in the UK political parties begin to wheel out celebrities to endorse their campaigns.

Yesterday we saw Ed Miliband doing an interview with Russell Brand and last week a public letter signed by 40 celebrities backing Caroline Lucas’ re-election was released.

There is lots of evidence to suggest that celebrities’ endorsements of brands are only successful when there is an overlap of their brand values and it is communicated using an idea.

A good example of a successful celebrity and brand partnership was when Sainsbury’s worked with Jamie Oliver.  Sainsbury’s brand values were about encouraging people to be more adventurous with their cooking and Jamie Oliver was a chef who built his brand on innovative recipes – a perfect overlap.  The idea used to communicate their partnership was called ‘Try something new today’.

An example of where it’s gone well in politics was Jo Brand’s recent party election broadcast for the Labour Party which was on the topic of the NHS; she’s well known as being left-leaning and was a former nurse, so it made sense for people.

When there is no synergy between the brand and the celebrity the communication falls very flat and can even annoy people.

An example of this was the furore created  when, as an April Fool, The Guardian announced that Chris Martin from Coldplay was going to support David Cameron  by releasing a new version of hit song Talk, called Talk to David.  Those unaware that it was a joke were outraged as they couldn’t understand what the two had in common.  People who were fans of Coldplay but didn’t like Cameron, felt like they were being hypercritical in a way.

In psychological terms this is known as cognitive dissonance; this phrase refers to the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs.

So, if you respect and secretly aspire to be like Celebrity A but they have endorsed Political Party B – which you despise – you are likely to feel unsettled and upset about the collaboration.

Another example of this celebrity endorsement going badly was when Eddie Izzard kept popping up for various causes including Gordon Brown in 2010, the Alternative Vote referendum in 2011, Ken Livingston’s Mayoral campaign in 2012 and the Scottish Referendum in 2014; people wondered what this comedian has got to do with all these issues.  And it didn’t help that until the Scottish Referendum, Izzard had been on the losing side of every contest sparking the amusing internet meme “The Curse of Eddie Izzard”.