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Wed 19 February 2020
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The co-founder of the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising welcomes new recommendations on electoral and political advertising, but believes they have ignored the biggest issue.

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A cross-party group of MPs called for a fairly comprehensive list of measures to update the rules relating to electoral and political advertising last week.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Electoral Campaigning Transparency’s report, Defending Our Democracy in the Digital Age, makes sensible and useful recommendations across three areas of three key areas: transparency, monitoring and deterrence. It is good to see this.

But, at the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising, we feel it has missed the biggest issue: that there is nothing to stop political advertising telling untruths. A chocolate bar’s advertising is regulated, but political advertising is not because the scope of the UK’s advertising regulator, the Advertising Standards Authority, doesn’t cover it.

As a politically neutral group of advertising practitioners with experience of running and measuring the impact of numerous ad campaigns for some of the UK’s best-known brands, we know that one of the biggest impacts of an ad campaign usually comes from the actual message. Unless we can regulate this, we cannot have fair and accurate political advertising.

The ASA provides a world-leading service in regulating what the advertising industry calls ‘content’, which includes everything about the ad itself, including what can and can’t be said in it. Astonishingly, political advertising is the one area the ASA does not have within its reach.

Here is how regulation of ad content currently works. Advertisers have a self-regulatory code they have agreed to abide by. If members of the public have an issue with an ad they can complain to the ASA, which is there as a backstop. (Some two-thirds of the many complaints it receives relate to misleading claims made by advertisers). The ASA decides whether it considers the ad to have breached its code. If advertisers are found to have transgressed, the ASA has various sanctions it can impose. The code that advertisers have to abide by is extensive.

We are urging politicians to introduce of a similar process for political ads in order to ensure – as the ad industry might say – the substantiation of factual claims. Or – as the public might say – to stop politicians from lying.

This is something that the public wants. YouGov research, commissioned by the Coalition over the period of the 2019 General Election campaign, showed that 87% of the UK public agree “that it should be a legal requirement that factual claims in political adverts should be accurate”. The result was almost identical for members of the public regardless of which of the main parties they voted for or whether they voted ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ in the 2016 EU Referendum.

What is required is regulation: a mechanism by which the public can make complaints and a process established to ban misleading political advertising.

During December’s General Election, major misleading claims and lies were called out by the media and independent fact-checking services such as BBC Reality Check, Channel 4 Fact Check and Full Fact, but the same, discredited claims continued to be made and nothing changed.

Anyone who doubts the need for regulation in this area should take a look at the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising’s considerable compilation of misleading ads during the General Election. The objective of this project was to gather evidence, across all political parties, of misleading claims in political ads. We used a team of volunteers to do this and, where we could, checked the claims using the third-party fact-checking services mentioned earlier. To the best of our knowledge, none of the ads making false claims were withdrawn. 

Our solution is simple and we are not attempting to reinvent the wheel. We merely suggest that some of the rules and processes which work for consumer ads should apply to political ads. In other words, political parties need to agree a self-regulatory code and the remit of the ASA needs to be extended to cover political advertising. The only barrier to achieving this is political leadership.

Read more about the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising’s campaign here


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