Background

When we started the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising in May 2018 there was no plan for political ad reform.

Historically, the stumbling block to updating the laws around political advertising has been a refusal by the main political parties to entertain the idea of change. Because of the lack of political will, UK regulators have been slow to push for or initiate reforms.

Now, at last, there is a significant appetite for regulation. The Disinformation & “Fake News” Inquiry from the Government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport published its recommendations in February and called for implementation of 2 of the points in our 4-point plan. It also has a recommendation calling for a “comprehensive review of the current rules and regulations” surrounding political advertising.

Damian Collins MP also called in September 2018 for a political ad code to be implemented that covers all 4 of our points.

Adding its voice to those from Westminster, the UK’s trade body for advertisers, ISBA, has put out a position statement supporting the regulation of political advertising and our plan. Its Director General, Phil Smith, says, “ISBA supports the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising’s 4-point plan and agrees there is urgency for there to be agreement in how political advertising should be more closely regulated ahead of any potential upcoming electoral processes.”

The trade body representing ad agencies, the IPA, has responded to the report by supporting the call for a public and searchable repository of political advertising, with imprints to show who is sponsoring an ad.

This is all good progress in accordance with our plan, although we are disappointed the DCMS report didn’t clearly recommend rules covering the content of political ads, and specifically ‘objective factual claims’.

The Government in its response to the recommendations has positively responded to digital imprints / watermarks and the concept of a repository which is also great progress. When these points are implemented will be critical and importantly it is key that the repository is independent of the ad industry and Government.  We will also continue to look to influence formal recognition for the substantiation of objective factual claims.

Now there is recognition of the need for change in this area on the part of the Government, citizens, the ad industry, businesses and not for profits we need to demand urgent change across all our 4 points.

Here is our plan. Our solution is a simple, uncontroversial, non-partisan 4-point plan that Parliament could easily implement. So:

1/  Legislate so that all paid-for political adverts can be viewed by the public

The DCMS report’s recommendation for this should be implemented in full.  “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. The repository should be run and managed independently of the advertising industry and political parties.”

Facebook and Google have already made changes of their own accord, which is to be commended, but we need industry-wide standards rather than 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 is a principal cause of many of the recent problems.

Parliament could expand the remit of the Electoral Commission, the Advertising Standards Authority or the Election Committee of Ofcom – or found an alternative body.

3/  Require all ‘objective factual claims’ used in political adverts to be substantiated

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 to optimistic 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 supposedly ‘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.

Turkey is joining EUCost of Brexit 4300 every household

The argument put forward against such regulation is that the fast pace of election campaigns and their need to react to events make compliance impossible.

But planning to maximise “agility” in order to be able to react to events is a problem most brands face. The solution is to work further in advance for events that you know are likely to happen. Retailers, for example, 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 couldn’t be covered by the above approaches. If there were to be one, a disclaimer could be added to the problem ad to say the facts have not been verified, rather like the health warnings in cigarette advertising.

The UK has a pre-clearance process already in place to weed out misleading claims via its BCAP and CAP advertising codes for all TV and VOD consumer advertising. We believe this process should apply to political claims of objective fact also.

4/  Introduce compulsory imprints or watermarks to show the origin of online adverts

Registered political parties and campaign groups are currently required by law to carry an imprint/ watermark on hard copy election materials revealing who is responsible for it. There is no such requirement for digital communications.

Given that almost anyone can make and disseminate digital political advertising, knowing what is “official” and what is being put out by over-eager supporters or unknown others will become increasingly important to enable voters to decide how seriously to take political messages that come their way. A requirement for a digital imprint would be one way to do this.

We also think the following principles need to apply when the Government is modernising regulation.

  • There has been an understandable focus on digital in the DCMS report’s recommendations. There is no doubt that regulation of political advertising is in woeful need of being brought up to date with the digital world. Legislation hasn’t changed since 2003! But, taking factual claims as an example, regulation needs, to apply to all media rather than only to digital.
  • When tackling digital, several recommendations have focused on the need for Facebook to reform. Facebook is obviously very important, but the digital marketing ecosystem is complex as anyone working in marketing will testify. The need is for regulation to cover the entire digital marketing ecosystem if we are to counter disinformation and fake news effectively.
  • Advertisers increasingly look at their communications in terms of a ‘customer journey’ which takes account of all the touchpoints in the fragmented media landscape we now inhabit. We agree with the Independent Commission on Referendums that ‘An inquiry should be conducted into the regulation of political advertising across print, broadcast and online media, to consider what form regulation should take for each medium and whether current divergences of approach remain justified.’ For example, account needs to be taken not only of paid adverts but of what marketers call ‘owned media’: all the communication channels under an entity’s control, such as websites, blogs, email – and also ‘earned media’, such as publicity resulting from editorial influence of various kinds.

Finally we are acutely aware that there could be a snap general election or decision to have a second referendum over the next few months.

As mentioned above the Government’s response to the DCMS Disinformation & “Fake News” inquiry has positively announced some legislation for political ad reform. However, as the committee discussed it will not come into force until 2020 or 2021. We would therefore like to put forward a proposal on how we can accelerate the reform of political advertising and restore the trust of the electorate in any upcoming political process by requesting that political advertisers should adopt a campaign pledge for responsible election campaigning.

It is based on our 4-point plan. We are putting it forward as a starting point and we are  encouraging feedback and further input. We are politically neutral and our ambition is that all the political parties in the UK adopt it. You can read the campaign pledge here.