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Ad hominem, ad regulatus

Rae Burdon

Recent Labour party advertising, in particular – to paraphrase – Rishi Sunak protects paedophiles from prison – has attracted much commentary and most of it focused on the subject matter of child sexual assault, the ‘ad hominem’ nature of the approach, its credibility and the dissenting voices from within and without the Labour party. It has been analysed ad nauseam, so to speak, from a political perspective and, to an extent, from a communications perspective, but there’s been precious little discussion of what voters might think, or how they might react to this ad. 

So let’s picture the focus group of swing or uncommitted voters who are shown the ad. To remind ourselves, it reads: “Do you think that adults convicted of sexually assaulting children should go to prison?” RISHI SUNAK DOESN’T, followed by RS’ signature, no less.

We suggest that the reaction of most would be something along the lines of: “Doesn’t he? Surely that can’t be right.” Whether they get much further than that immediate reaction, or whether they see it as another dubious political ad is another matter, but we advise not to take bets against a high level of disappointment in this form of campaigning. 

Surely, the critical point is that this ad is, above and beyond any other issues of taste, of ethics, of political direction or management, simply grossly misleading and it and its plentiful like should not continue to be permitted. 

While content of electoral advertising has not been regulated since 1989, when the ASA ‘retired hurt’, let’s suppose for a delicious moment that the ad was subject to the rules that apply to commercial advertising. The CAP Code provides under rule 3.7: ‘Before distributing or submitting a marketing communication for publication, marketers must hold documentary evidence to prove claims that consumers are likely to regard as objective and that are capable of objective substantiation. The ASA may regard claims as misleading in the absence of adequate substantiation.’ 

We should add that we really don’t know how the ASA might deal with this ad if it was to be in its scope, but we suggest that Labour party evidence that Rishi Sunak ‘doesn’t think that adults convicted of sexually assaulting children should go to prison’ might be a little on the slim side. That is the claim being made in this ad and no amount of explanatory context or positioning, from any source, can alter the fact that that is what is written on the page. And aside from what he may or may not think, it  has been established that Rishi Sunak was not part of the sentencing guidelines to which the ad relates. Because this advertising addresses supposed personal beliefs and direct connection to a failure of policy, then surely it is incumbent on the advertiser to be able to provide relevant substantiation in the form of a personal record of such beliefs or conduct? 

We should also add that we don’t have a dog in this fight. We think this ad is poor for the reasons we have set out, but for the past four years we have been critiquing poor ads from all the main parties. This is just an ‘ad hominem’ version of the Conservative party’s ads for ‘Labour’s strikes’ and, like many, we’re heartily sick of the Lib Dems’ ‘dodgy bar charts,’ versions of which are right now making appearances at your local election.

In June 2020, a House of Lords cross-party committee unanimously recommended that political parties should work with regulators such as Ofcom, the ASA, the Electoral Commission and the UKSA, to develop a code of practice for political advertising that restricts ‘fundamentally inaccurate advertising during a parliamentary or mayoral election, or referendum.’ 

The official response served only to show that the party of government doesn’t confine its piffle to its advertising. A recommendation that factual content might be required to be accurate was rejected, largely on the grounds that it would have ‘a chilling effect on freedom of speech’. We leave it to others to judge whether the concern might actually be the effect on freedom to tell a porky or two or, when distributed, several billion porkies. For the record, we have no interest in restricting expression of political opinion, policy, or principles – we just propose that voters shouldn’t be courted on the basis of untrue or misleading statements. 

In conclusion, here are two accurate statements: First: nine out of ten UK voters think that it should be a legal requirement that factual statements in political advertising should be accurate (YouGov 2019 and 2020). Second, there is no regulation of the factual content of electoral advertising beyond the requirement to include an identification of promoter and candidate (but not, bizarrely, of party). In our view, and that of many others and especially voters, this whole situation brings advertising, political advertising and even the democratic process, into disrepute. 

One of the reasons the ASA works is simply because it’s there; advertisers and their agencies know the rules and generally observe them because they prefer to avoid the hassle and expense of an adverse ruling from the ASA council. Those who write for political parties have no such boundaries and, inadvertently or otherwise, misrepresentation frequently happens because it goes unchecked in any meaningful way. Over time, an ‘anything goes’ culture develops: if a party is making some impact with misrepresentation, competition will respond in similar fashion and the snowball of lies gathers pace and size. The very existence of a regulator with teeth would at least make those responsible for developing political advertising think twice.

The Labour party are promising they will assail us with more in this genre; the Conservative party may respond in kind. The Lib Dems could show us a bar chart that says neither can win here and, for once, they may be right. Wait for another big red bus and three of them come along at once.

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