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 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, now there is a significant appetite for regulation. Most significantly the DCMS Disinformation & “Fake News” Inquiry final report published in February has in its recommendations clearly called for two points in our 4 point plan to be implemented. It also has a recommendation calling for a “comprehensive review of the current rules and regulations” surrounding political advertising.

Damian Collins MP also called for a political ad code to be implemented in September that covered all four points in our plan.

In addition to waves being made in Westminster, the British marketing industry has also found its voice on the topic.

Last 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. They have also directly supported our 4 point plan. Phil Smith, Director General of ISBA, the body who represents the UK’s leading advertisers, 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.”

In addition the UK’s trade body representing ad agencies, the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) has called in response to the report for a public and searchable repository and that it is supporting “imprints to show the sponsor of the ad.”

This is all significant progress for our plan. However, we think it is disappointing that the DCMS report recommendations didn’t clearly recommend that there should be rules covering the content of political ads, specifically objective factual claims.

There is also risk around what has been achieved so far. The Government has 3 months from the publication of the DCMS report to respond to the recommendations. As has happened with various inquiries previously it can choose to ignore recommendations presented to it.  We must ensure that the two recommendations in the DCMS report (imprints / watermarks and the ad repository) get a positive response from the Government. We will look to influence formal recognition for the substantiation of objective factual claims.

Now is the time to build on our movement of citizens, the ad industry, businesses and not for profits to continue to demand change.

We detail our plan below. Our 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

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. It should be run and managed independently of the advertising industry and political parties.

Facebook and Google 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 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 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.

Turkey is joining EU

Cost of Brexit 4300 every household

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.

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

4/  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 (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.

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

  • There has been an understandable focus in the DCMS report’s recommendations on digital, and there is no doubt that regulation of political advertising is in woeful need of being brought up to date with the digital world we now live in. Legislation hasn’t been changed since 2003, which tells you how out of date it is. If you think of regulation around factual claims as an example, regulation needs, however, to apply to all media rather than only to digital.
  • When tackling digital specifically, several recommendations made so far have singled out Facebook as being in need of reform. While Facebook is obviously a very important actor, the digital marketing ecosystem is complex as anyone that works in marketing will testify. Social platforms are important, but the need is for regulation to be updated to cover the entire digital marketing ecosystem if we are to counter disinformation and fake news effectively.
  •  We’d add that advertisers increasingly look at their communications in terms of a ‘customer journey’ that takes account of all the touchpoints with consumers 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.