The call for political ad reform grows louder…

We started the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising in May last year by suggesting a series of changes we felt were uncontentious, yet would have a big impact in restoring trust in political advertising.

The four-point-plan we outlined was:

  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 factual claims used in political adverts to be pre-cleared.
  4. Introduce compulsory watermarks to show the origin of online adverts.

Since launch, there have been some important milestones in what we see as a growing demand for change in a climate where the role of platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and their role within UK democracy, is being increasingly questioned.

One of the earliest signs of progress was The Incorporated Society of British Advertisers  (Isba) coming out in support of all our key points. An impressive demonstration of leadership on what we see as the most important issue facing the industry.

The independent campaigning organisation, The Electoral Reform Society, also emerged last week as being in favour of messaging transparency as well as imprints on digital ads.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has also been quoted as asking for parties and campaigns to stop political advertising until they agree new rules on the digital “manipulation” of voters. The data watchdog thinks we are “at a crucial juncture, where trust and confidence in the integrity of our democratic process risks being undermined if an ethical pause is not taken.”

Agency-side trade body, the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA), earlier this week updated its position on the issue.  The IPA has said we need “a single body with the resources, cross-industry relationships and regulatory oversight” to oversee “a publicly available, platform-neutral, industry-owned register of all political ads online.”

The IPA has been a supporter of requiring imprints or watermarks on digital political advertising for some time, which means it is now behind three of the four changes we are advocating.

The IPA have proposed that the digital trading standards body for the advertising industry, The Joint Industry Committee for Web Standards (Jicwebs), should be made responsible for the register.

Our feeling is that a single body should be given oversight of all regulation (present and future) relating to political advertising content and our concern is Jicwebs’ remit would be too narrow and might lack the political authority that would overseeing all election advertising would likely require.

We fully agree with the IPA’s point that this database needs to be independent. That is something we’ve been clear about from the start. There was a danger that tools being developed by various platforms would be seen as providing a sufficient level of transparency.  While the efforts of Facebook, and other platforms, are to be welcomed, a wholesale solution that parliament agrees to and oversees is required.

The Advertising Association (AA)  hosted its annual lead conference last week and announced that the key theme for the industry this year is going to be restoring the public’s trust in advertising.  However, the action plan in its current guise doesn’t cover political advertising.

For this blueprint to be effective political advertising must be included; it is currently the most high profile aspect of our business and curbing its transgressions will have a significant halo effect on the rest of the plan.

We hope the AA and the IPA will soon follow the lead set by Isba and call for all four changes proposed by the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising.

Unity and conviction on this issue will make change more likely and will show our industry at its best.


YouGov research commissioned by the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising & Full Fact demonstrates that UK voters would support the regulation of factual claims

The research commissioned in the last few weeks indicates that the overwhelming majority of the UK would support introducing rules for factual claims used in political advertising.

Only 3% of those polled disagreed with the statement “Do you think it should or should not be a legal requirement that factual claims in political adverts must be accurate?”

In addition it showed clearly that the UK public are not aware of the fact that there are almost no rules for political ads to follow in stark contrast to the governance around consumer advertising. Consumer advertising has a self regulatory code set out by the BCAP and CAP codes and is regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority.

In response to the question “As far as you know, are adverts by political parties and campaigns in Britain required to follow similar rules as adverts for commercial products and services?” 14% thought “they are not required to follow similar rules as commercial advertising” and 51% answered “don’t know”.

As you can see from the data (that can be accessed below) the YouGov sample had an equal weighting of respondents that voted Leave and Remain in the EU referendum.

You can download the full YouGov research here CRPA_181120_YouGov.

We believe that ahead of any potential upcoming electoral processes (such as a second referendum or snap general election) there is urgency in the political parties agreeing to change in this area.

You can read more about how we propose the rules around factual claims in political advertising could work here.

As the Disinformation & “Fake News” inquiry demonstrated yesterday political adverting reform is just common sense. Not only for the electorate but also the political parties.

Yesterday was an important day that re-emphasised the urgent need for the Government, in its final report due early next year, to accept many of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s Disinformation and “Fake News” Inquiry’s recommendations.

As a non-partisan coalition of the ad industry we responded to Damian Collins’ call  in the trade press a few months ago for a code of political advertising. The points we’ve been advocating since our launch in May are now included in the proposed code. When we launched there was, as far as we know, no plan for reform, so it has been gratifying to hear the points in our original four-point plan finding support among the regulators present at the DCMS committee yesterday: Elizabeth Denham from the Information Commissioner’s Office, Claire Bassett from the Electoral Commission and Guy Parker from the Advertising Standards Authority.

The ICO’s announcement yesterday that it is calling for code of practice covering the use of data in campaigns and elections compliments that element in our wider political advertising code also.

To take each point in our plan in turn:

1. Give an existing body the power to regulate political advertising content or create a new one to do so

Guy Parker, CEO of the ASA, opened his session by stating, “Everyone thinks that political advertising should be regulated, by the way … the difficulty is how and by whom?” Well we’ve outlined the core of the “how” in our code, and the “by whom” is for the Government to decide between the ASA, the Electoral Commission, or a new body.

2. Imprints – all advertising with a political purpose should include a clearly identifiable imprint that tells you who paid for the advertising and whom it is promoting.

The Electoral Commission have put out a statement that “All non-printed election and referendum material should contain an ‘imprint’ so voters can see who is targeting them.”

3. Messaging transparency – a searchable repository of online political advertising should be developed, including information on when each advertisement was posted, at whom it was targeted, and how much was spent on it. There should be a requirement for all political advertising work to be listed for public display so that, even if the work does not require regulatory clearance, it is accountable, clear, and available for all to see. It should be run and managed independently of the advertising industry and political parties.

Claire Bassett agreed with this recommendation (also advocated by the DCMS’s interim report) so that people “can go and look at these libraries and see what messages are being put forward and what messages are being targeted at me”.

As we’ve said previously, the only way this will be effective is if there is a simple way for the citizen, researcher or journalist to access the information via an independently run database of all political ads for a particular campaign period. Solutions developed by individual media owners or platforms demonstrate good intentions and could feed into the solution, but can’t on their own solve the problem. This is because of the sheer numerousness of websites and platforms by which political ads can be delivered to the UK public.

4. Factual claims – a regulator should rule on factual claims in political ads, requiring that there be evidence to substantiate the claims being made. We believe these should be pre-cleared, as is currently the case with TV ads via Clearcast.

Guy Parker dispelled any myths that might exist about the impossibility of regulating factual claims. He stated that “75% of the work that they do [at the ASA] is to prevent ads being misleading” which certainly underlines its importance as part of any reform.

He stated that a line would need to be drawn between what is “legal and permissible political opinion, and straightforward misrepresentations of fact,” adding that the latter is rare. However, he also stated that “None of these [problems] are insoluble and [the ASA] have a lot of expertise to help.” “If political parties are serious about writing a code, we could help them draw up fast track procedures” so that there could be rapid rulings within an election period. Also that “They could help [the parties] put in place processes that would help them decide between straightforward misrepresentations and political opinion.”

Okay, so what is the barrier? It is simply that we need the political parties to agree to a code.

When trust in political campaigning and our democratic processes is at such an all-time low, we argue that some bold interventions are needed to restore that trust. Surely this is as clear as the light of day?  Google have a saying they have used at sales meetings, to the effect that the pace of technological change will never move as slowly again as it did yesterday. By that they mean that organisations need to embrace change and move faster than their environment is changing. We need the same with regulation.  We need these interventions to safeguard our democracy against the inevitable march of some of the negative aspects of technological change on our democracy, which is the root cause of the case for reform.

We also need leadership from the main parties and for them to rise above misperceptions of what might be against their partisan interests. Just as businesses have to accept restrictions in how they operate, so those campaigning in elections can’t just aim to win at any cost. Indeed I’d argue that the parties need to scrutinise the potential impact of each of the points we’ve been making and ask themselves whether those are really going to undermine their campaigning if everyone else is playing by the same rules,

Is there really any valid argument against imprints? I have yet to come across one.

Is there any honest argument against a regulator for political advertising – the CEO of the ASA says everyone accepts that needs to happen.

What about an independent database of political ads bringing transparency to all the ads being used in a campaign?

And how about the regulation of factual claims, given that Guy Parker says there are in any case unlikely to be many during a campaign period that would need to be treated as straightforward misrepresentation of fact? Obviously where they do occur despite being low in frequency they can have a significant impact though.

For the handful of claims that historically would have fallen into that category, what are the political parties going to say to the electorate? That they intend to win by straightforward misrepresentation of fact? If you asked the leaders of each of the parties – call me naïve – I can’t imagine they would oppose banning misrepresentation if everyone else was playing by the same rules. I’d argue as a “beta” signal of intent ahead of any such wider cross party agreement individual parties signing up to a campaign pledge to abide by the proposed code at the start of an election period would likely gain an advantage. Certainly in how their party is perceived.

You could argue cost considerations against the last two points but how much is it actually going to cost? Even with the additional security measures that would likely be required, my experience of running websites and databases suggests such costs wouldn’t be prohibitive. Additional resources to enable fast track complaint investigations by a regulator such as the ASA also surely isn’t going to cost that much in the big scheme of things.

The ASA as it has pointed out needs a funding review in any case to be able to tackle the changing nature of what they now have to manage including the increase in the volume of complaints against digital advertising and content on websites. An appropriate mechanism could surely be found to fund political advertising costs, for example from one of the platform levies being tabled. And if the government had the appetite for it is there really not a case for central Government funding? It would be a drop in the ocean, and safeguarding our democratic processes should surely be a high priority.

We’ve never said that it would necessarily need to be the ASA that provides the regulatory backstop for political advertising. However, given what was said yesterday at the DCMS committee I’d like to challenge them to use their expertise and experience to demonstrate to the political parties what factual claim regulation would actually look like. I imagine this wouldn’t be an onerous task and could draw heavily on existing consumer ad regulation, like the CAP or BCAP codes that govern non-broadcast and broadcast advertising.

Guy Parker presented an articulate and thought-through response to the questions put to him yesterday. The ASA’s 5-year strategy presented last week also offers a compelling vision  of purpose, ambition and strategy for the future of ad regulation. Its stated purpose is “to make advertisements responsible”, and its ambition is to make “every UK ad a responsible ad.” Providing a specific scheme for bringing political advertising into line with those aims would, I believe, address a very important gap. One that has a negative halo effect on the rest of advertising too.

Claire Bassett mentioned yesterday that the Electoral Commission had asked for imprints for online ads in 2003! The overarching need is for the Government and political parties to acknowledge the urgency of the situation and to drive this reform forward. Also to recognise that there should be no electoral risk in agreeing to reforms which are just plain common sense.

Alex Tait is the co-founder of the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising

Does the government recognise and understand the urgency around issues that need addressing in modern UK elections?

Yesterday the Government published its response to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s interim report on Disinformation and ‘Fake News’.

The DCMS inquiry report’s recommendations, issued in July, were broad and wide-ranging. Our interest in them naturally centred on political advertising and campaigning. When they were published we commented that the report represented significant progress in thinking on the topic, although we had suggestions on how it could be developed further, which you can read here.

As advertising practitioners we may not be well versed in reading government responses, but, given the immense importance of the issue, this one seems to fall quite far short. Commentators have already noted that some key recommendations appear to have been kicked into the long grass. Quite a few issues are referred on to the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation for consideration, or it is proposed that action should be delayed pending the outcome of the government consultation ‘Protecting the Debate: Intimidation, Influence, and Information’.

We believe that for all the reasons we have previously given, urgent action is needed to restore and maintain the integrity of our electoral processes. We believe that the political code we proposed, in response to a request a few months ago from Damian Collins MP in the marketing trade press, needs to be considered in the final DCMS report and reflected in the Government’s final response.

Currently the Government’s response deals with the points in the draft code as follows:

  • Factual claims – a regulator should rule on factual claims in political ads, requiring that there be evidence to substantiate the claims being made. We believe these should be pre-cleared, as is currently the case with TV ads via Clearcast.

This wasn’t covered initially in the DCMS report and therefore hasn’t been in the Government’s response. For the fact that lying in political ads is currently permissible not to be covered in an inquiry into disinformation was a significant omission. It was, however, subsequently covered in Damian Collin’s suggestion for a political ad code so we would expect this to be in the final DCMS recommendation. We will be submitting evidence to the DCMS inquiry on our thoughts of how this area should be tackled.

  • Imprints – all advertising with a political purpose should include a clearly identifiable imprint that tells you who paid for the advertising and whom it is promoting.

The Government will wait until their ‘Protecting the Debate: Intimidation, Influence, and Information’ consultation is published. Following this they will consider how imprints on online content could be implemented more widely.

  • Messaging transparency – a searchable repository of online political advertising should be developed, including information on when each advertisement was posted, at whom it was targeted, and how much was spent on it. There should be a requirement for all political advertising work to be listed for public display so that, even if the work does not require regulatory clearance, it is accountable, clear, and available for all to see. It should be run and managed independently of the advertising industry and political parties.

Again the government states that this will be considered following the conclusion of its ‘Protecting the Debate’ consultation. We note, however, that the proposal for a searchable database is not included in the scope of that consultation.

Facebook’s recent UK launch of tools allowing greater transparency on their platform received a lot of PR last week and should be commended. However, there is a danger that there is taken to be a solution to the transparency issue. It isn’t. It can play an important part but we need an independently run database of ads served across the digital marketing ecosystem to allow interrogation by interested parties including citizens, journalists and researchers. As we’ve mentioned before Facebook is an important player but political ads can achieve the same or greater reach of the population via a combination of numerous other platforms and media owners.

  • Give an existing body the power to regulate political advertising content or create a new one to do so.

There needs to be a body overseeing political ad regulation. Although this is not explicitly agreed in the Government’s response, we are assuming it will be picked up during discussions with the Advertising Standards Authority when the DCMS takes evidence from them. We believe the Electoral Commission should also be part of this process.

We proposed some points in addition to those Collins raised in his call for an ad code:

  • Political advertising should be restricted to registered campaigns during the regulated election period.

We interpret the Government’s response to mean that they will be able to give a full response on this point early in 2019, after publication of the outcome of the ‘Protecting the Debate’ consultation.

  • Targeting. Potentially a contentious issue, but we believe there are three main options:
  1. Comply with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation and upcoming ePrivacy Directive.
  2. Ban micro-targeting in digital generally (not only in social media).
  3. Specifically ban certain types of targeting. We believe the suggestion of the DCMS that look-alike targeting should be banned does not go far enough, and that to achieve the goal other types of targeting would need to be ruled out. A limit to the number of messages sent has also been suggested.

This also all appears to be kicked into the long grass with a referral that it will be dealt with by the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation.

The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation is an excellent initiative and we welcome it. Its remit of ‘targeting, fairness (of algorithms), transparency (for data), liability, data access and intellectual property and ownership’ seems to empower it to tackle the topic . We suspect, however, that due to its scope it will take a while to set up, let alone reach any conclusions on this area.

The government consultation on ‘Protecting the Debate: Intimidation, Influence, and Information’ also covers the following specific topics:

  • ‘The Government should consult on the introduction of a new offence in electoral law of intimidating Parliamentary candidates and party campaigners
  • the Government should extend electoral law requirements for an imprint on campaigning materials to electronic communications.’

Damian Collins has been an excellent champion of much needed change in this area. He called for the code for political advertising to be in place by the next elections in May 2019. As we have previously pointed out, we live in fractious political times and would like to play our part in moving this deadline forward, in view of the possibility of other elections being called in the meantime.

We as a coalition of advertising and marketing practitioners believe that modernising the rules around political advertising is one of the most pressing issues of our time. This response potentially shows a worrying disconnect with the government’s understanding of the issues or this urgency. Damian Collins has stated he was “disappointed” with this interim response and he has made a statement that can be read here. We need the DCMS inquiry to redouble its efforts to push forward the need for change in this area and the government’s final response to react responsibly to this.

We urge the government to prioritise this.

We are a cross-party and not-for-profit initiative.

Political Advertising Code suggestions

We’ve aligned to points Damian Collins made in a call for a code for political advertising in Campaign magazine on the 13thAugust relevant recent recommendations concerning political advertising. We’ve included recommendations from the Independent Commission on Referendums, the Electoral Commission, and the interim report from the DCMS Committee’s Inquiry on Disinformation and ‘Fake News’.

The aim of this exercise has been to help contribute more definitive and consistent recommendations for political advertising reform generally. Also to contribute towards the Government’s response to the DCMS’s interim report recommendations due shortly and the DCMS Committee’s final recommendations, which are to be published later in the year.

For full transparency you can download our workings here. We’d welcome any feedback.

Political Ad Code suggestions