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.

Who regulates political advertising?

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.