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Brexit Politics Advertising

Should UK political ads be better regulated?


By John McCarthy, Opinion editor

March 22, 2018 | 9 min read

Should ads be better regulated in the UK? The argument they should is gaining momentum, especially amid a miasma of squabbles emerging around the infamous Brexit bus and concerns Cambridge Analytica made unauthorised use of Facebook data to mass manipulate the populace.

Political ads

Is more regulation required for political ads?

Even the Electoral Commission has called for updated laws to keep better track of digital campaigns, forcing ad buyers to identify themselves, in pursuit of more transparency amid accusations of foreign meddling in the election.

Will people pay heed or will they hear what they want to hear as the echo chamber enacts deeper ideological barriers into an increasingly polarised populace.

An impassioned clash, worthy of the Commons, took place at The Drum and Sun Arms during Advertising Week Europe (Wednesday 21 March) and it all came back to a single lynchpin, do people actually believe anything politicians say anyway?

Below is an introduction to the panel, those arguing FOR and AGAINST better regulation.


James Best, former Adam&Eve exec

David Harris, executive creative director at Gyro

Graham Temple, director of the Institute of Promotional Marketing


Christie Dennehy-Neil, Senior public policy manager at IAB, formerly of the Electoral Commission

Natalie Gross, partner at TH_NK

Will Harris, CMO, former Tory marketer

The Drum Advertising Week panel

James Best (FOR)

Best opened the debate calling for 'better' regulation of advertising in the UK. He said regulation exists on TV (via the party political broadcast s) but added that the content is not regulated, instead it is subject to libel, copyright and hate speech laws.

He called back to 2004 when the Electoral Commission was looking into regulating the space closer. "After several months of consultation, they ducked out, as the parties rejected a code with any teeth, the conclusion was wistful, no further progress was likely to be achieved... but something must be done."

Best said: "Democracy is flawed but of all the systems, it is the least worst one and we are rather fond of it in this country."

Ads have a special power, he said, and because of this, "attribution is absolutely key".

He made reference to the questionable and unattributed advertising that found its way onto social media platforms, seemingly at the behest of the Russian state – "in last couple of elections you may not even know that you are being advertised to by a political interest."

Christie Dennehy-Neil (AGAINST)

"There is trust problem," said Dennehy-Neil. "But does that mean political ads should be regulated as ads for cars or washing powder?" She added: "You can’t treat political and marketing ads in the same way."

A misleading washing powder ad could be live for a long time until the regulatory body, the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) collects all the facts. She argued that this model would be infeasible and impractical, especially during an election cycle.

Furthermore Dennehy-Neil nodded at politician's penchant for perfidious prose, ie if political ads were regulated for untruths, "would you even be able to complain about an ad two years down the line?"

She said: "What if that ad promised XYZ, but then it turned out there was no extra money for XYZ. That is not practical, you cannot do that."

In advertising, the watchdog can access whether a strapline like 'Whiter than White' is misleading, she said. Imagine having to decide if the Conservatives' line 'Labour is not working’ is misleading.

Furthermore, she underlined that there is no amount of ad regulation that could stop foreign secretary Boris Johnson talking about the £350m offered by the Brexit bus. "He can still talk about anything, and you can’t regulate against that."

Instead of regulation she suggested "Rigorous fact-checking, good journalism, critical thinking and democratic discourse, not political ad regulation."

David Harris (FOR)

Coming back in the FOR category was Gyro executive creative director David Harris who made the measured argument that political advertising is so powerful because the public thinks it is regulated in line with general ads.

He said: "The ordinary man on the street doesn’t know they are being deceived by untrue communications, this is a problem for the general public and advertising too."

While politicians were served with an 80,000 signature petition urging them to enter a regulatory framework, the motion was rejected, as Harris put it: "turkeys don’t vote for Christmas and why should they?"

He underlined that top brands spend millions on building trust, and that political parties, brands themselves, could see the value in their brands drop amid repeated misleading ad incidents.

Harris urged them to stop talking about regulating social media giants, especially so-called fake news purveyors, particularly in the knowledge that the most damaging fake news is largely propagated by politicians. "It is logical that they should start regulating themselves and stop faking news."

Will Harris (AGAINST)

Former Tory marketer Harris added a pinch of realism and a sprinkle of cynicism into the mix, showing the impracticality of regulation.

He said: "We are in the real world, marketers and politicians are deviants, our job is to find the weakness in their opponent's argument and exploit it.

"Find me a marketer that hasn’t done that and I will find you a failed marketer."

Harris also underlined that these 'deviants' would find away around – or to break – any regulatory framework that does get passed all in the name of getting more coverage.

"Regulation will bring more eyeballs, more coverage, more sensation for the story, the whole objective of limiting what they say will actually push them," he added. "When they are challenged they are given a soap box to present their arguments, imagine that happening every day in the election cycle, it would not work and would have the opposite effect."

He also said he did not entirely believe that the population was gullible enough to accept statements made in political ads on a verbatim basis. "People don’t trust politicians why would they trust their ads? I hear them talking and I know they are making it up, I don't suddenly suspend my belief in a Shakespearean manner and believe them."

Graham Temple (FOR)

Temple said consumers are well protected from misleading ads. "Heaven forbid we don't buy a soap powder that doesn't clean as well as advertised."

But he added that most of the UK's 47 million voters don't know that political ads are scarcely regulated.

"If an ad if wrong, we will put it right. The consumer feels like it they are protected in the world of ads, they see this and think is political ads are fit for purpose. But we don’t distinguish between general advertising and political advertising."

He added: "It is implied that political ads are as thoroughly regulated as general advertising."

Instead of hammering down inaccuracies, Temple merely suggested a mandatory disclaimer on political ads. He suggested the following: "This political ad is funded by the xyz Party. The content and claims that appear have not been verified by an independent authority as either honest, truthful or decent."

He urged the advertising bodies to get behind this push for more transparency.

Natalie Gross (AGAINST)

Gross closed the debate, saying regulation would be the "lazy option". The UK already has "strong laws" to combat election interference and misleading or dangerous claims from politicians.

She stated that the lies often peddled by these politicians are not merely restricted to ads, but in their speeches, actions and more.

Gross asked: "Is regulation the right way to handle a much broader issue that not only challenges democracy – but also breaks it?" she answered: "It is a myopic change that won't safeguard the integrity of an election."

Her conclusion was that regulation is an "unenforceable option" noting that the definition of what an ad even is has shifted so much in recent years.

"Am I going to have to regulate my own comms, tweets and posts, it is an outmoded way of thinking, it is impossible to distinguish between an ad and media and comms."

Audience Vote Result

52% FOR, 48% AGAINST (now where have we seen that before?)

Watch the full introduction arguments on Facebook here.

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