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The call for political ad reform grows louder…

Alex Tait

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.


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