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

ISBA, the voice of UK advertisers, joins Damain Collin’s call for greater political advertising regulation

Damian Collins called yesterday in an advertising trade publication for a new code in political advertising. Despite its low key launch this should be of great significance for everyone in the UK.

As marketing practitioners, we feel marketers and the marketing trade press have historically shied away from the issues in political advertising: the former perhaps feeling that politics is too polarising, and the latter suspecting that the topic isn’t of great interest to their readers.

We at the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising, set up by practitioners in May, have found almost everyone we’ve spoken to in the marketing industry is supportive of change. People find it hard not to be when they realise political advertising is almost unregulated, in stark contrast to consumer advertising which is subject to strict rules enforced by the Advertising Standards Authority. From the conversations we’ve had, few people realise this.

Now, however, the trade bodies are becoming vocal on the topic. ISBA, the UK ad trade body, that gave us a supporting statement at launch today gives full endorsement of our four point plan. It states “political advertising in the digital era has the potential to be a powerful force for good. To ensure this promise is fulfilled now is the time for it to be more closely regulated. The creation of an independent oversight body would strengthen trust in our democratic system by demanding higher levels of transparency in terms of origin and content. We also support calls for limiting political advertising to registered campaigns during election periods.”

Many other companies and industry bodies have also joined the Coalition, including the online retail organisation IMRG and econsultancy.

Separately, the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, the trade body representing ad agencies, has been active, reinforcing the point we’ve made about messaging transparency and also calling initially for a ban on microtargeted ads. In a subsequent statement it has agreed with the recent Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) report recommendation that “a minimum limit for the number of voters sent individual political messages should be agreed, at a national level”.

As we mentioned in our last blog, when we started out there were, as far as we knew, no comprehensive plans for how political advertising should be reformed. There were numerous areas we could address, but we decided the best way to achieve our aim was to formulate four points we felt would have the biggest impact, but which it would be difficult for anyone to disagree with. Additionally, we made sure this was a not-for-profit initiative and cross-party in principle. Wherever possible, we would source examples from both sides of the debate. Ultimately, the reason was that, for change to happen, it would need to be agreed to by the main political parties.

You can find further detail here, but out four points were:

1. Legislate so that all paid-for political adverts can be viewed by the public
2. Have compulsory watermarks to show the origin of online adverts
3. Create a body to regulate political advertising
4. Require all factual claims used in political adverts to be pre-cleared.

Recommendations concerning political advertising have been made in their reports over the last few months by the Electoral Commission and the Independent Commission on Referendums.

Messaging transparency, compulsory watermarks and imprints have been covered in these recommendations, the latter being included as issues for consideration in the code proposed yesterday.

A recommendation that would represent a significant step forward, but which hadn’t so far been made anywhere else, is one we’ve been advocating since launch. That is, to introduce regulation of factual claims. Damian Collins proposed yesterday that the “Advertising Standards Authority should rule on factual claims in political ads, requiring that there be evidence to substantiate the claims being made.”

As we mentioned in our response to the report of the DCMS, this recommendation would bring political advertising into line with the consumer ad regulation set out in the Committee of Advertising Practice Code (CAP, which excludes broadcasting) and the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice Code (BCAP ).

The suggestion that the Advertising Standards Authority could regulate political advertising is one that the DCMS will gather evidence on in the Autumn. Certainly we’ve advocated that there needs to be one body with oversight of all political advertising: either the Electoral Commission, the Advertising Standards Authority, the Election Committee of Ofcom or some alternative body.

Our four points seemed very ambitious when we first put them forward, but all our recommendations are now covered in the code proposed yesterday.

The article by Damian Collins makes three other recommendations. We think “the restriction of political advertising to registered campaigns during the regulated election period” is very sensible.

The idea is also floated of a Competition and Markets Authority investigation into the selling of advertising on social media in order to understand the real levels of fake accounts on these sites. If these accounts are being sold to advertisers as real, but are in fact fake, it would raise the question of whether these audiences are being missold to advertisers. There could potentially be a role for JICWEBS (the Joint Industry Committee for Web Standards) and potentially for TAG (the Trustworth Accountability Group) to input into this process, which are the industry bodies responsible for digital ad fraud.

The third recommendation in the article concerns the targeting of digital ads in line with a recommendation in the DCMS report that “Facebook users should have the right to opt out of being included in customised lookalike audiences, where Facebook sells audiences to political campaigns based on people whose data profile is most similar to their existing custom audience of known supporters.”

We anticipated that getting agreement on how targeting should be reformed may not be straightforward. We’d agree with the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising that covering in scope only Facebook and one type of targeting is too narrow. It should certainly cover the entire digital marketing ecosystem. Similar capabilities exist in the programmatic display space, where personal data sets are also vast, for example via Google and Oath, as well as Acxiom and Oracle Data Cloud to name but a few. We agree that a principle-based approach across all targeted media would make sense to future-proof this recommendation against the inevitable developments in targeting technology.

The other danger we’d caution against is narrowing the scope of the code to the point where it is merely “a new code for political advertising on the internet”. We should take the opportunity to modernise political advertising regulation holistically. Any regulation around factual claims, for example, needs to work across all media, not just digital.

Damian Collins’ call yesterday was a big step towards ensuring that the rules for combating the spread of disinformation and for promoting healthy political debate keep up with new communication technologies.

In our view, the focus should now be on two ways of taking this forward. First the industry needs to deliver and build on Damian Collins’ code of political advertising. We need to ensure that the various recommendations are brought into focus in a way that enables practical implementation in keeping with the spirit of the principles.

We’d recommend that all sectors of the industry play their part, through the relevant trade bodies, in taking ownership and driving this forward. To maximise appropriate engagement the marketing trade press also needs to raise awareness of the need for this programme of change in how we run political campaigning in the UK.

Second, and most importantly of course, is that we see the advisory recommendations in the recent reports and article yesterday transformed into statutory legislation.

To let slip the opportunity of addressing these issues robustly would be a massive disservice to our democratic process and to future generations.

Alex Tait & Benedict Pringle
Co-Founders, The Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising


Damian Collins’ call for a code for political advertising – A message to adland: ASA should rule on ‘lies’ in political ads

Published in Campaign magazine 14.08.19

We need a new code for political advertising on the internet, and social media in particular. We should look to have this in place in time for the next set of elections in the UK, in May 2019.

• The code could include the following: the restriction of political advertising to registered campaigns during the regulated election period.
• All advertising with a political purpose should include a clearly identifiable imprint that tells you who paid for the advertising and who it is promoting.
• The Advertising Standards Authority should rule on factual claims in political ads, requiring that there be evidence to substantiate the claims being made.
• Facebook users should have the right to opt out of being included in customised lookalike audiences, where Facebook sells audiences to political campaigns based on people whose data profile is most similar to their existing custom audience of known supporters.
We also recommend that there be a Competition and Markets Authority investigation into advertising selling on social media.
Key to this would be to understand the real levels of fake accounts on these sites. If these accounts are being sold to advertisers as real, but are in fact fake, it would raise questions about whether these audiences are being missold to advertisers.

Damian Collins is an MP and chair of the DCMS select committee.

Our advertising practitioners’ response to the DCMS report. Significant progress but we need a more holistic approach and further clarifications.

The DCMS report is a substantial document and we welcome its contents. As many commentators have noted, the recommendations are far-reaching and far-ranging.

When we started the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising in May there weren’t many comprehensive solutions being put forward by industry, the trade press or the wider media to the problems relating to political advertising in a digital world.

It is very encouraging, therefore, to see that some aspects of the 4-point plan we have been advocating since launch are in the report’s recommendations, as I show below.

In order to update those who have supported us this far, and to clarify our position going forward, we outline here at a high level where we think there is work still needing to be done, and point to what we believe are some important omissions in the interim report.

For ease of reference we are providing an update against the specific 4 points we’ve advocated as we did after the Leave ads were released by Facebook last week.

Require watermarks showing the origin of online adverts

The report recommends legislation for “imprints” and consideration of “clear, persistent banners on all paid-for political adverts and video, indicating the source and making it easy for users to identify what is in the adverts, and who the advertiser is”.

This principle has also been advocated in recommendations by the Electoral Commission and the Independent Commission on Referendums in their respective reports in the last few weeks.

Our view is that in consideration of the “clear, persistent banners” it is certainly technically possible as the numerous innovations in ad formats demonstrate.

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

The report also states that the Government…:

“should investigate ways in which to enforce transparency requirements on tech companies, to ensure that paid-for political advertising data on social media platforms, particularly in relation to political adverts, are publicly accessible, are clear and easily searchable, and identify the source, explaining who uploaded it, who sponsored it, and its country of origin. This information should be imprinted into the content, or included in a banner at the top of the content. Such transparency would also enable members of the public to understand the behaviour and intent of the content providers, and it would also enable interested academics and organisations to conduct analyses and to highlight trends”.

This is a key recommendation but assuming, as with all the other recommendations, that it does become legislation, how it is implemented will be crucial.

Facebook has just launched its own transparency solution in the UK, which you can see here.


There are some contradictions from recommendations relating to messaging transparency in the report out yesterday and those from the Electoral Commission and the Independent Commission on Referendums.

Facebook’s attempt to get ahead on this issue is commendable, but our own view is that for this to work optimally there will need to be an independently run searchable database with common standards across platforms and media owners.

As we’ve said before, Facebook is undoubtedly a very large and important player but there are numerous other platforms and media owners that political advertising can be run on.

There will need to be consistency in how this recommendation is implemented across the market.

Require all factual claims used in political adverts to be pre-cleared

Given that just now the serious malpractice going on in political campaigning is so high on the government and media agenda, it is important we seize the opportunity to promote a holistic approach in the solutions being considered.


No doubt because of its Terms of Reference, the DCMS report focused mainly on “false, misleading and persuasive content” on digital platforms, and this means there are some glaring omissions.

Surprisingly, none of the recent reports have made recommendations on how to deal with outright untruths in political advertising.

As we mentioned last week we’d welcome full disclosure of Remain ads to allow the same scrutiny but the Leave referendum campaigns ads submitted by Facebook show a significant amount of factually incorrect ads. The ads above are good example of this.

It hadn’t been agreed that Turkey was joining the EU and according to channel 4 fact checkers the EU has never wanted to ban tea kettles! You can also see some other examples at this link.

This is an issue across all media, not just digital. With the increased appetite for reform this surely has to lead to legislative change.

The current regulation of political advertising is woefully inadequate compared with consumer advertising requirements.

This, for example, demands in section 3 of the CAP (non-broadcast code) and BCAP (broadcast code) that “marketing communications must not materially mislead or be likely to do so” and “marketing communications must not mislead the consumer by omitting material information. They must not mislead by hiding material information or presenting it in an unclear, unintelligible, ambiguous or untimely manner”.

Also, in respect of verifiability, “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.”

When the issue now being addressed is precisely disinformation and misinformation, why would political advertising at a minimum be brought into line with consumer advertising?

Create a body to regulate political advertising

It isn’t yet clear how all this is to be regulated. The report recommends, apparently only with reference to digital advertising: “that the possibility of the Advertising Standards Agency regulating digital advertising be considered as part of the Review. We ourselves plan to take evidence on this question this autumn, from the ASA themselves, and as part of wider discussions with DCMS and Ofcom”.

We believe there should be a separate regulator with overall responsibility for all political advertising.

We’d also urge clarity and specific detail in the final recommendations, and here advertising practitioners themselves can help.

As an example, in the recommendation below we see the report mentioning the need to develop a code of conduct for “social media” during election periods.

Similar techniques to those which have raised all this concern can be applied outside social media platforms in digital display, video and mobile formats.

It would make sense for recommendations to apply across the industry and not just to social platforms.

Also, in this particular example we would recommend allowing audiences to opt in rather than opt out of their data being used for targeted political advertising. That would bring it into line with data regulation and would better address the present general disquiet about data being used to target citizens inappropriately.

“The Electoral Commission should also establish a code for advertising through social media during election periods, giving consideration to whether such activity should be restricted during the regulated period to political organisations or campaigns that have registered with the Commission. Both the Electoral Commission and the ICO [Information Commissioner’s Office] should consider the ethics of Facebook or other relevant social media companies selling lookalike political audiences to advertisers during the regulated period, where they are using the data they hold on their customers to guess whether their political interests are similar to those profiles held in target audiences already collected by a political campaign. In particular, we would ask them to consider whether users of Facebook or other relevant social media companies should have the right to opt out from being included in such lookalike audiences.“

There are many other positive suggestions for safeguarding our democratic process in the report out yesterday.

It is good to see the progress that has been made, but we are also in no doubt that it is important for the marketing communications industry not only to put forward recommendations for positive change but also to offer suggestions about how the reports’ “principle based recommendations” can be implemented in practice.

You can read our original statement giving background on The Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising here. We are a cross party initiative and not for profit.

Release of Vote Leave adverts bolster case for reforming political advertising

We believe that the Vote Leave ads released yesterday by Facebook validate a four-point plan we have been advocating since we launched it in May. The plan proposes reforming political advertising in the following ways:

  1. Legislate so that all paid-for political advertisements can be viewed by the public
  2. Create a body to regulate political advertising
  3. Require all factual claims in political advertisements to be pre-cleared
  4. Introduce obligatory watermarks to show the origin of online advertisements

Yesterday Facebook released 1,433 of Vote Leave’s targeted Brexit ads to a committee of MPs investigating fake news. No matter what your political persuasion, it must seem incredible that many of these ads were used in any form of voting campaign given that many contained clear untruths.

They were also implemented as ‘dark advertising’, meaning that they were visible only to the advertisement’s publisher and the intended target group.

In support of the reforms we’re recommending, we invite you to consider some examples from the ads released yesterday against our points.

Create a body to regulate political advertising

Many of the ads would have fallen foul of current consumer advertising legislation policed by the Advertising Standards Authority, but political advertising is not regulated in the same way. As we’ve regularly pointed out, few members of the general public know that. We’ve previously explained our position on creating a body to regulate political advertising, as you can read here.

Obligatory watermarks to show the origin of online advertisements

It is not clear in many of the messages released by Facebook that they are in fact political ads. This example was targeted at animal lovers, and is one of many examples where no imprint or watermark was used.

animals vote leave

Here is another, targeted at older voters, reacting to Obama’s intervention in the referendum debate. As advertising practitioners, we think it is worth pointing out as an example and as reported by the BBC the targeting wasn’t inconsequential: it had a reach of up to 25% among women aged over 65, and a different version targeted 23% of men in the same age group.

Obama vote leave

Messaging transparency

Virtually none of these ads were available for scrutiny by citizens and journalists until Facebook were forced to submit them to the committee.

Since the Cambridge Analytica story broke, the major platforms have committed to some positive steps to provide greater transparency in political advertising. It isn’t enough, though, to rely on the goodwill of all the numerous platforms and media owners whose services are available to political parties for targeted political advertising.

We need legislation to ensure consistent transparency, and we welcome and support implementation of one of the recommendations made a few weeks ago by the Independent Commission on Referendums. That recommendation mirrored our own position since launch that we need industry-wide standards to ensure transparency, rather than trying to rely on platform-specific solutions.

A key recommendation put forward was that ‘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.’

The recommendations put forward by the Independent Commission on Referendums, and last month by the Electoral Commission, are only advisory. We need parliament to show the will to turn these recommendations into legislation.

Requiring all factual claims in political adverts to be pre-cleared 

One argument put forward against the signing off of assertions of fact is that in an election process their numbers are insignificant. Another [also put forward by the Independent Commission on Referendums, incidentally] is that it is impossible to make definitive judgements on the objective truth of political claims and statements. The corpus of ads clearly shows a significant number of assertions of fact in the referendum, including those below. These ads demonstrate that it is perfectly possible to make an objective judgement on assertions of fact and ‘substantiation’ provided by a political advertiser.

We’ve shown in the past that misleading claims were also made by the Remain camp in the referendum, such as this one (to which we’ve attached an assessment by independent fact checkers).

Remain lies

To summarise, we are passionate about responsible advertising. Our campaign has been set up by practitioners in the UK marketing industry and we now have a groundswell of support for what we are advocating from many individuals, companies and trade organisations working in the UK advertising industry. This includes a supportive statement from the UK ad trade body ISBA and such other high profile organisations that have joined our Coalition as eConsultancy and the online retail trade body IMRG.

Join us in demanding change. We need to seize the opportunity presented by the current heightened interest and awareness of these issues to ensure we modernise the way political advertising is regulated in a digital world. Read more about our Coalition and sign up to support us here https://reformpoliticaladvertising.org.

The BBC has written a brief summary of the ads released yesterday which you can read here You can also view more of the ads here.

We are keen to emphasise at the outset that the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising is a cross-party initiative advocating change in the way political ads are regulated. We would therefore welcome the same transparency from Facebook on the messaging used in the Remain campaign’s Facebook ads in the EU referendum as they have provided on the Leave campaign.

Electoral Commission report diagnoses problems but ducks difficult solutions

The Electoral Commission has published a report which provides an analysis of the problems posed by digital campaigning and a set of recommendations to remedy them.

The Electoral Commission’s acknowledgment of the concern and confusion it found amongst voters whilst researching the issue of campaign transparency is very helpful.

Much of the mainstream media have characterised those concerned about decaying democratic norms as a small number of sore losers; we now have strong evidence to the contrary.

The diagnoses of our democratic ailments is the best part of the report. Unfortunately, the solutions proposed are firmly within the Electoral Commission’s comfort zone and will do little to promote lasting change.

Campaigns can continue to lie in their advertisements

The Electoral Commission research highlights that voters’ concerns relate to “both the content and source” of political advertising.

The report explores solutions to problems relating to uncertainty around “the source” of ads but doesn’t address voters’ worries around misleading content.

The Electoral Commission simply states that “we are not in a position to monitor the truthfulness of campaign claims”.

There is not a single mention in the report as to how they propose to remedy this situation.

Given that one of the functions required of the Electoral Commission is to “make recommendations about how to improve the fairness and transparency of our democracy” that’s a fairly significant omission.

The issue of campaigners using deliberately misleading factual claims is the elephant in the room of political advertising regulation and the Electoral Commission have again tried to ignore it.

Passing the buck

The Electoral Commission says it is positive that social media companies are planning to create databases of all the UK election adverts run on their platforms.

Their hope is that they “publish their data in the same format”; one assumes that if the tech companies are happy to oblige the Electoral Commission they will create a single overarching database.

The report could have called for legislation that requires political campaigners to publish every advert they produce directly to a database run by the Electoral Commission.

This more radical approach would put UK Parliaments more in control of their election campaigns and make them less reliant on the good will of the social media companies; it would prevent political campaigners using platforms or media owners who have yet to pledge to keep databases of political ads; it would future-proof against new platforms that emerge (who are unlikely to prioritise political advert transparency).

Putting all the burden on these companies, rather than the creators of the ads and the Electoral Commission, is shirking the responsibility of running fair and transparent elections.

The tech companies’ databases would be a useful way to check that political campaigners are indeed publishing their work to the Electoral Commission site. However, relying on them as the only source of transparency is lazy and risky.

The report says that if the self-regulation doesn’t work “the UK’s governments and legislators should consider direct regulation”.

Given how infrequently Parliament changes electoral law, taking a “wait and see” approach is missing a rare opportunity to change things for the better and leaves our elections more open to future manipulation than is necessary.

Theres no one in charge and thats fine

The foreword of the Electoral Commission’s report acknowledges “that no single body is responsible for all the concerns raised by digital campaigning”.

Given the scale and complexity of the problems that the report goes on to detail, it seems odd that the Electoral Commission doesn’t demand the powers that would make themselves responsible.

The Electoral Commission’s comfort zone is delivery of elections (ballot papers, reminders to vote etc…), regulating political finance and monitoring campaign spending.

This is particularly apparent in the fact that 11 of their 17 recommendations are related to campaign spending.

But the world has moved on and reporting on who has spent what is no longer enough.

The Electoral Commission must either take up the challenge presented by digital campaigning or propose a reduction to their remit and the creation of a body that can.