Historically, the stumbling block to updating laws around political advertising has been the fact that the main political parties have refused to entertain the idea of change.
Due to the lack of political will, UK regulators have been reluctant to push for and / or unable to initiate reforms.
However, several factors have contributed to a growing appetite for regulation, the latest of course being the Cambridge Analytica scandal that had an impact on hugely significant elections on both sides of the Atlantic.
There are now reasons to be optimistic about the possibility of change.
In Westminster, the leaders of the Green Party and the SNP have both raised the issue at Prime Minister’s Questions.
Conservative MP Damian Collins has kept political advertising regulation consistently in the headlines via his Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport Select Committee Enquiry into Fake News.
And Liam Byrne, a Labour backbencher, has sought to amend the Data Protection Bill to include measures borrowed from the Honest Ads Act that is being debated in the US Congress.
In addition to waves being made in Westminster, the British Marketing industry is beginning to find their voice on the topic.
Early this year the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA), the trade body representing advertisers in the UK, put out a position statement saying that they supported the regulation of political advertising.
Then in April 2018 the UK’s trade body representing ad agencies, the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA), announced it will be making an “official call to the Electoral Commission and the political community at large for a moratorium on micro-targeted political advertising online”. Also that “all political advertising creative work [should] be listed for public display so that messaging whilst not regulated is transparent and accountable for all members of the public to see should they wish”.
But without urgent action, the impetus will be lost and the issue left to fester in the long grass.
Now is the time for a movement of individuals and companies to demand change.
The solution is a simple, uncontroversial, non-partisan four-point plan that Parliament could easily implement.
1/ Legislate so that all paid-for political adverts can be viewed by the public
We agree with the objective the IPA has set out to make political advertising creative work “listed for public display” so that it is “transparent and accountable”; this implies that registered political parties and campaign groups would have to upload their communications to a site which members of the public can view.
We think there are some other steps which could be taken in addition.
The Honest Ads Act in the US has some good ideas on how to achieve transparency and accountability in implementation that we believe we could adopt in the UK.
It stipulates that platforms with over 50 million unique users must maintain a fairly granular public record of political ads, including the copy and target audience, for advertisers spending over $500.
In the case of bad actors seeking to exploit loopholes in this governance, it also lays the onus on the platforms to “ensure reasonable efforts are made to keep foreign nationals from buying ads”.
Facebook have already made changes of their accord, which should be commended, however we need industry-wide standards rather than just platform-specific solutions.
2/ Create a body to regulate political advertising
We need a body to oversee the content of political advertising; there is no regulation of this in the UK and that fact is a principle cause of many of the recent problems.
Parliament could expand the remit of one of the Electoral Commission, the Advertising Standards Authority or the Election Committee of Ofcom – or found an alternative body.
3/ Require all factual claims used in political adverts to be pre-cleared
If a campaign wants to make a seemingly objective and quantifiable claim in its political advertising, it should be accurate and stand up to independent scrutiny.
We’re not calling for an end of hopeful promises or scaremongering about what the other side might do; we’re simply saying that if you want to position something as a fact the public have a right to be confident that it is just that.
Below are two examples of factual claims made in the EU referendum – one by each of the official campaigns – which were rubbished by independent fact-checkers within hours of the advertising going live and yet the messages ran throughout the campaign.
The argument that is put forward against such regulation is that it is impossible because of the fast pace of election campaigns and the way they need to react to events.
But planning to maximise “agility” in order to be able to react to events is a problem most brands face. The solution is work further in advance for events that you know are likely to happen; for example retailers don’t know exactly when the hot days of the year will be, but they get regulatory approval on ads promoting barbecues and lawnmowers in advance so that they can act nimbly.
We can’t think of a political campaigning situation in paid media that wouldn’t be covered by the above approaches. If there is one, then at least a disclaimer could be added to that ad advising that the facts have not been verified, rather like the health warnings in cigarette advertising.
4/ Compulsory watermarks to show the origin of online adverts
Registered political parties and campaign groups are currently required by law to carry an imprint (read: watermark) on hard copy election materials which outlines who is responsible for the advertising.
However, there is no such requirement of digital communications.
Given that almost anyone can make and disseminate digital political advertising, knowing what is “official” and what is over eager supporters will become an increasingly important way for voters to discern how seriously to take political messages that they happen upon; a requirement for a digital imprint would be one way of helping voters to do this.