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.
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.
The official General Election 2015 ‘long campaign’ only began in late December and we have already had the first instance of public outcry about the fact that political parties are not governed by the usual rules that ensure that advertising is tasteful and decent, honest and legal.
In short: political parties can say and depict whatever they like in their advertising and the only reprimand they need to fear is negative publicity and many voters find that lack of regulation unpalatable.
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.
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 in The Independent in 1997 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?”
These concerns about the ASA regulating political ads haven’t gone away, but the fact that politicians can make deliberately misleading advertisements without fear of recrimination is ridiculous and the Electoral Commission and CAP should revisit the issue after the General Election.
Rumours are rife that 3 political advertising luminaries of elections past have been drafted back into the front line.
At a recent Labour Party fundraiser Alastair Campbell was reportedly dropping Blair’s former adman Beattie’s name in at regular intervals and discussing ideas the two were working on.
At an event held by the IPA last night, Lord Bell (involved in the infamous Labour isn’t working) was ‘outed’ as being back in the political advertising game. Bell let on that David Abbott – one of the greatest copywriters of all time – had recently written him a poster around the thought “the economy is Brown bread”. Very good.
And Philip Gould – a founder of New Labour and author of political communication bible The Unfinished Revolution – is featured on the Labour Party’s new create an ad website (and is presumably helping to judge the winner) offering tips on creating a good political poster: “Keep the message simple; use strong images; try to weave in humour wherever possible” . Couldn’t agree more.
As the result of the election gets ever more uncertain it seems the parties have called upon the communications experts who have served them so well in the past. With these guys on board, I’m sure there will be advertising fireworks to come!
Polling company ComRes and the UK’s biggest online betting company BETFAIR have joined forces to make some fantastic widgets that predict and track the results of the 2010 general election.
The widget above (wordpress currently won’t let me embed the widget, so just an image at the moment) tracks polls from the UK’s six biggest polling companies (ComRes, YouGov, ICM, Angus Reid, Populus and MORI) to give the most accurate reflection of public opinion. The graph will be updated live as and when new polls are released, so that you are kept right up-to-date with all the movements over the course of the campaign.
The ebbs and flows of polls will have a huge influence on the tone and content of the political advertising that is released throughout the election. And, you never know, maybe a political advert might end up having some sort of effect on the polls!
I’ve just been informed that my one-man campaign to get TV broadcast political advertising legalised in the UK isn’t in fact as niche (don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that it’s still a postive crany in the long corridor of UK issue campaigns) as I originally thought. Media law giants and experts Lewis Silkin have been pursuing this agenda for the last couple of years (see above), they’ve even produced a badge!… no I don’t have this fastened on to my anorak… except perhaps proverbially.
Luminaries from across the advertising industry give their comment, including Sir Chris Powell – former Chairman of BMP DDB and author of ‘How the Left learned to love Advertising’ – who captured the broad sentiment of the piece when he said: “…you can’t just do it with advertising… you need a good strategy, based on some truth, with some great ads to get it across”
Robert Campbell’s response was also very witty: “Could I save Gordon Brown with a poster? Not in a million years. I only wish I was that good and advertising was that powerful.”