It’s time to regulate political advertising

restore truthful politics - regulate political advertising change

A Change.org 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.

 

 

Artists IN

One of the impressive things about the Stronger In campaign is that they have managed to capture the imaginations of taste-makers and those who contribute to popular culture. Everyone from celebrities, to athletes and – in this case – artists have felt able to put their names to the campaign.

This was by no means a given at the start of the campaign: the proverbial political establishment milkshake doesn’t always bring the boys to the proverbial yard.

Below is a collection of work by 14 internationally-renowned artists each of whom designed pro-remain posters for Stronger In.

There are some truly stunning bits of work in there and it’s not surprising that supporters have been more than willing to wear them on t-shirts and post them online.

 

M&C Saatchi’s first ad for Stronger In

Advertising agency M&C Saatchi, having been appointed by Britain Stronger In Europe in early May, have produced their first advertisement for the Remain campaign.

It shows UKIP leader Nigel Farage and Conservative MP (and former Mayor of London) Boris Johnson, both key figures in the Leave campaign, sitting on a branch of a tree looking gormless whilst they sabotage themselves by sawing through their makeshift bench.

I think the message in the poster is that those who want to leave the EU are creating problems for themselves and, by implication, for the nation.

It isn’t one of the clearest pieces of communication from the Stronger In campaign.

M&C Saatchi have obviously tried to replicate the effect of their big hit from the UK general election – Miliband in Salmond’s pocket – by going without a headline.

Unfortunately, in this instance, I think a headline might well have helped give clarity to the intended message and deflect from any perception that this is an unfounded personal attack.

The confusion comes from the fact that a viewer can’t tell whether the Leave leaders are deliberately putting themselves in jeopardy or are doing so unknowingly.   It matters because the former implies malice and the latter implies ignorance and stupidity.  And there’s no policy message to give those who see it a reason to believe that either of those two attacks is justified.

When M&C Saatchi are on form, they can turn an election.  If you believe the polls, Stronger In will be pushing their agency hard to improve on this first offering.

A fifth reason for Stronger In supporters to remain positive

Stephen Bush, special correspondent for the New Statesman, has written an article which tries to help Remain supporters believe that – despite a string of recent polls putting Leave ahead – there are four reasons to suggest the only way isn’t exit.

It’s a brilliant article and I would like to add a fifth reason to give hope to those who want Britain to stay in the EU:

I believe there is evidence to suggest that the air war is being won by Stronger In.

The ‘air war’ – the media narrative around an election – is a significant factor in the result of any election as it colours the information that the electorate use to decide which way to vote.

One of the reasons why Donald Trump dominated the Republican primary contest is that he dwarfed the earned media coverage of every other candidate; even when the field thinned to three candidates in April, Trump was still getting 100% more earned (as opposed to bought) TV coverage than his nearest opponent Ted Cruz.

Indeed in every US Presidential election since 1970 the share of earned media won by a candidate has been the best predictor of success (better than both nominations and donations).

You win the air war by bombarding newsrooms and news sources with stories, films and photos.  When journalists are scouring Twitter in order to prepare a piece on ‘the horserace’ for the evening news or the next day’s headlines, content from the campaigns can help tip the balance on the nature of the coverage.

Whilst an analysis of 928 press articles by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism showed that 45 per cent were in favour of leaving while 27 per cent were in favour of staying, it seems the trend in TV coverage – which has greater reach as a source of news than print – is towards Remain.

Broadcasting watchdog News-watch have stated that from their analysis “the BBC has yet to accept that Brexit is mainstream, respectable and of significant public interest” and that they have “yet to find a programme that has been biased in favour of Brexit”.  They have conducted regular analysis of flagship BBC TV news programmes and highlighted how framing and language has favoured the Remain campaign.

And the BBC isn’t alone for perceived bias, Vote Leave feel that ITV’s coverage of the referendum is so biased towards Remain that they lodged a (unsuccessful) complaint with Ofcom.  The complaint claimed that between 6 April and 29 May, Stronger In campaigners were awarded 51 min 14 airtime versus “leave” at 39 min 29.

Vote Leave might claim that the fact that Remain are receiving greater coverage is because of institutional favouritism, but had Leave’s campaign been surprising, informative and even – dare I say it – entertaining, it’s hard to argue that these news outlets would have withheld it from their viewers.

And, least importantly, in my opinion the campaigning materials that Stronger In have deployed is of a far higher quality in terms of clarity, consistency and creative execution.  From leaflets, to online videos to Referendum Broadcasts, the Vote Leave materials have been either scarce or shoddy.

Vote Leave have flitted between flimsy claims about reinvesting money saved from leaving the EU into the NHS and pulled punches on immigration.  Stronger In on the other hand have been ruthlessly and creatively delivering a message centred on economic certainty, security and support amongst experts.

Whilst some might scoff at the idea that quality campaign materials make a difference to the nature of news coverage, it’s worth remember that journalists are people too and, like other normal people, they’re easily enchanted by simple stories told well.

 

Gordon Brown – lead not leave

It’s another year, another referendum where the future direction of a nation is at stake and Gordon Brown has made another barnstorming speech.

The video has had over 2 million views on Facebook, which is impressive even if they have put some money behind it.

I like the way the location of the film is relevant to the speech; and didn’t they get lucky with the weather!  You can pay a lot of money to fly to sunny locations half way across the world just to achieve that lovely lens flare.

The copy-writing is very good indeed (aside from the slightly tricksy ‘fight with arguments and not with armaments’ line).

The sense of patriotism that the film managers to evoke is incredible and the sentiment of the whole piece is very neatly summed up with the end line “lead not leave”.

It’s almost worth having another referendum in a couple of years time just so that we’re in with a chance of getting a third referendum-themed masterclass in oratory by our man from Kirkcaldy.

 

Sticky language

DIY recession stronger in

I’ve just come across this graphic that was released on Monday of this week, the same day that David Cameron and George Osborne wrote an article for the Daily Telegraph warning that Brexit would put the British economy in serious danger.

I’m sharing it because I thought both the article and the accompanying graphic included a brilliant piece of ‘sticky’ messaging and is an example of the sort of language that provides the ideal springboard for developing creative communications.

If you read the excerpt below, the first two paragraphs are decidedly standard. They use the sort of language and terminology that one would expect from a politician making an argument.

However, the final paragraph takes the straight information and gives it a twist so that it speaks to the audience in a language they can relate to.

“The analysis produced by the Treasury today shows that a vote to leave will push our economy into a recession that would knock 3.6 per cent off GDP and, over two years, put hundreds of thousands of people out of work right across the country, compared to the forecast for continued growth if we vote to remain in the EU.

In a more severe shock scenario, Treasury economists estimate that our economy could be hit by 6 per cent, there would be a deeper recession and unemployment would rise by even more.

This would be, for the first time in our history, a recession brought on ourselves: a DIY recession.”

The phrase ‘DIY recession’ conjures up vivid imagery and perhaps personal associations that should result in better retention of the information.

This language is useful for communicating with the public, but it is also helpful for creative teams developing further ideas for posters, videos and leaflets.

The graphic developed by Stronger In is solid enough, but it wouldn’t surprise me if M&C Saatchi are beavering away at creating something which makes the point in a more evocative and newsworthy way.

Vote Leave’s new poster uses Turkey as a bogeyman

Vote Leave - Turkey is joining the EU - poster

Vote Leave have released a poster depicting a passport as an open door alongside the claim that Turkey is joining the EU.  The stated intention behind the poster is that it aims to highlight to the electorate the additional number of people who might legally migrate to the UK if Turkey was allowed to join.

The poster is a follow-up to a video released two days prior which accused David Cameron of being duplicitous about the likelihood of Turkey joining the EU.

Vote Leave have thus far struggled to establish a bogeyman for their campaign.  You can read about why that might be here.

But the fact that they’ve done a few bits on Turkey suggests to me that their research shows that a proportion of floating voters would lean towards Leave if they were told that the secular middle eastern republic would join the EU in the short to medium term. In short, they’re testing the waters of making Turkey their bogeyman.

This is the first time that Vote Leave have deployed a poster about immigration.  The fear of accusations of racism is surely the only reason for the hesitation, as poll after poll shows that immigration is a top issue for voters and that those who favour limiting it highly correlate with those likely to vote Leave.

Some are indeed accusing the poster of deploying racist dog-whistle tactics, rather than raising legitimate concerns around immigration numbers, but whether Vote Leave stick with this line of attack will depend on poll numbers not headlines.

Previously the Vote Leave campaign had been pushing a message, requiring a fair amount of mental gymnastics, around spending the money we’d save from EU membership on the NHS (see poster below).

The Vote Leave strategy up until now must have been based on the assumption that they wouldn’t win 51% of votes cast with an immigration-only message.  As they judge that to be the case, they’ve been trying to add to their supporter base those who care deeply about the NHS.

It will be interesting to see if this Turkey activity is the first evidence of Vote Leave giving up on their coalition-building agenda and shifting their focus towards what most people assumed, prior to the campaign, would be their core message.