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Has Political Advertising Gone Rogue?

ephen Colegrave, who worked for global advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi for a decade, considers whether political advertising has gone beyond any regulation or fair play and what this might mean for the future of democracy.

Stephen Colegrave, who worked for global advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi for a decade, considers whether political advertising has gone beyond any regulation or fair play and what this might mean for the future of democracy.

Blurred Lines

I worked for the best part of a decade for Saatchi & Saatchi in the 1990s in pretty senior positions including being its marketing director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. This included a rather surrealist episode when I took a PowerPoint presentation to the Czech Government with Steve Hilton, to educate them about successful political advertising and campaigning.

However, I have never known a time like this when political advertising has been so powerful and seemingly unregulated, and the blurring between political advertising and government advertising is so obvious and worrying.

I can’t remember the Conservative Party, when I was at Saatchi & Saatchi, advertising the virtues of a sitting Conservative Prime Minister at the same time as that Prime Minister is also running a complementary ‘public interest’ Government campaign.

At Saatchi & Saatchi, we prided ourselves on leading the world in understanding political advertising and we advised politicians from around the world from Boris Yeltsin to John Major. But, political advertising – although very smart and effective – had not yet gone rogue. It still relied on strategic thinking, market research, clever targeting and creative campaigns like the mother of all political ads Labour Isn’t Working and later the inelegant Tax Bomb.

Although there were early signs of what was to come, the digital weapons to go truly rogue did not yet exist – the first dot com narrow band revolution hadn’t even happened. We couldn’t micro-target people with dark ads, that had to wait for Cambridge Analytica. Even my most sceptical advertising friends had to admit that we couldn’t target susceptible individuals with knowledge from more than 3,000 data points for each person enabling dark ads – or, more accurately, fake news – to be personalised to prey on individual prejudices and concerns. This was a whole new level of engagement and persuasion that is no longer recognisable as advertising as we knew it.

The Past Wasn’t Perfect

Of course, there were always lots of smart ways to bend spending rules.

America created SuperPacs, supposedly independent groups that could spend money on a candidate’s behalf without breaking spending rules. At Saatchi & Saatchi, we were slightly more prosaic. We perfected getting the single billboard on the front pages of daily newspapers with a carefully orchestrated press call, creating hundreds of thousands of pounds of free advertising, or even better get banned – which created a whole new round of PR coverage.

There were other ways to ensure that political parties allegedly had more advertising fire power. Sometimes they needed a bit of credit to help them afford to mount a major advertising campaign, even within the spending limits. Advertising agencies soon learned that, while political parties tend to be poor, governments have plenty of money to spend on public information campaigns. Interestingly, political parties that were likely to win elections tended to be allowed to build up considerable credit with their agencies. Perhaps it was just a coincidence that those agencies already had, or very quickly gained, large Government advertising accounts.

But, the easiest way was for parties to start their advertising drives early, before the official campaigning time that qualified for the elections watchdog, the Electoral Commission’s spending rules. 

The best ploy was for political parties that were also in Government to be ambiguous about the separation between advertising for the public good and advertising in the interest of party politics. There was, and is, the charmingly named ‘purdah’ convention which bans government and its agencies from communicating anything that might affect an impending election for six weeks. Even here, things are changing. In the event of a snap general election, Boris Johnson’s Chief of Staff Dominic Cummings has made it clear that the Government will not abide by this.

Going Rogue

Boris Johnson seems particularly adept at currently navigating this ambiguity. With the likelihood of an election in the next three months, it is interesting and worrying that the Prime Minister has unleashed the floodgates on Facebook and other advertising, with a reputed £100 million being spend by the Government on Brexit preparation ads – possibly the biggest advertising campaign since the Second World War. 

To me, the message is pretty simplistic but the overall takeaway is for voters to feel that the Government has everything under control and is fully prepared for a ‘hard’ Brexit.

The £100 million in advertising is likely to help Johnson electorally if we crash out of Europe and there is a general election – though I’m sure this was not on Johnson’s or Cummings’ minds when they commissioned and sanctioned the campaign. However, £100 million also buys a lot of nurses or teachers.

Johnson and Cummings have further confused political advertising and Government communications by using the Conservative Party, rather than the Government, to advertise on Facebook following Johnson’s success in winning the premiership to bolster him, spending at least £4,000 a day on the pursuit. This type of ‘blended’ campaign is a new initiative that further blurs the lines.

In a weaponised version of the US SuperPacs, this problem is compounded by targeted, uncredited dark ads and the prevalence of shadowy, untraceable organisations funnelling money into online campaigns.

Facebook is particularly prone to this and last year one such group, Britain’s Future, run by an obscure comedian named Tim Dawson, spent nearly half a million on a Facebook campaign for a ‘hard’ Brexit. The Guardian later reported that one of the administrators of the campaign page was an employee of the (in)famous lobbyist Lynton Crosby, who has run several Conservative Party political campaigns and backed Johnson to be Prime Minister.

A System Too Easily Gamed

It is not surprising that Cummings and Johnson want to game the incredibly lax regulations on political and government advertising, especially on social media.

Apart from the legitimacy of using public money for potential political advertising, there is a real lack of regulation of the messaging itself. We all know that Cummings and Johnson have form here, with the notorious £350 Million a Week red bus. This is because political advertising is not subject to the same rules as non-political advertising. 

So, while all non-political advertising, including government advertising (presumably because this is not considered to be political), is subject to the Code of Advertising Practice and is regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) watchdog, ads by political groups and parties are not.

“Regulating traditional advertising is very different from regulating material that forms part of the democratic process,” explains the ASA. “It would be inappropriate for us to intervene in that process.”


It could be argued that the democratic process is under threat because there is no regulation.

The Coalition For Reform In Political Advertising is an international, non-partisan organisation created by advertising practitioners who want to change this. Although there’s little evidence that the group has had much traction they have started to get the issue in the public domain and Full Fact managed to get the Conservative Party Facebook advert – which erroneously claimed that the Government was providing a £14 million cash boost for schools – removed and reported by the BBC.

The groups has a sensible prescription for reforming political advertising:

  1. Legislate so that all paid-for political adverts can be viewed by the public
  2. Give an existing body the power to regulate political advertising content or create a new one to do so
  3. Require all objective factual claims used in political adverts to be substantiated 
  4. Introduce a requirement of Compulsory imprints or watermarks to show the origin of online adverts.

The Danger for Democracy

Even if reforms such as these were enacted, would Cummings and Johnson or the Brexit Party or far-right groups play ball?

The Cambridge Analytica scandal is still raw and shows that too many groups were happy to use dark propaganda and fake news micro-targeted to the most susceptible. Just because Cambridge Analytica has been shut down and Netflix has produced The Great Hack, doesn’t mean that the data or the means to game the next election in this way has gone away. 

Many of us hoped that, after the revelations about Cambridge Analytica and the Vote Leave campaign, run by Cummings, was found to have broken electoral law, something would be done about this.

But, the reality is that, the next election is likely to be gamed more than any other since the 1836 Reform Bill was passed. My real concern is why so few people who should be doing something about this seem either oblivious or not prepared to do anything.

Unless we can make the public care about this, democracy will be in danger and who knows where that will lead.

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