The disconnect between regulation of digital and physical advertising is gradually closing, as efforts to increase the transparency and regulation of online ads begin to bear fruit. In the US, the Honest Ads Act was introduced with the explicit aim of improving the transparency of online political advertisements, and has since been endorsed by Facebook and Twitter, among others.
However, while the Cambridge Analytica scandal has galvanised policymakers to tackle digital advertising opacity, a disconnect between commercial and political advertising still exists in the UK: Political advertising is not subject to the same regulation as commercial advertising, which in practice means unsubstantiated claims can be freely circulated without bearing any labelling.
Christie Dennehy-Neil is head of policy and regulatory affairs for the Internet Advertising Bureau UK (IABUK) and has previously worked at the Electoral Commission. She believes that the need for regulation of political advertising is acute given the potential ramifications of misleading claims:
“The stakes are not very high for commercial marketing; it would be very hard to design a system of that nature for politics. The risks and harms are very different. You have much more objective truths, shall we say, if you're advertising a car than if you're trying to promote a political policy.”
It’s a view that is shared by Graham Temple, director of the Institute of Promotional Marketing (IPM), who has previously written on the need for political ad regulation for The Drum: “With political advertising, you're asking people to make decisions that are far more dangerous that what soap powder to use or what pillowcase to have, it's the Wild West. If you are media neutral, which the IPM is, in terms of where the communication for a campaign appears. This just does not make sense, that political advertising is unregulated. It’s completely illogical.
“The problem is that my postman doesn't know that.”
The Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising (CRPA), which has the backing of ISBA, argues that it is past time for regulation to come into effect. Its four-point plan is designed to counter the issues around lack of transparency and accountability that have led to, among other things, private lawsuits levelled at Boris Johnson for false claims made during the lead-up to the EU referendum.
The CRPA’s co-founder Benedict Pringle says that such flashpoints have finally brought the issue to the boil, with the DCMS under Damian Collins’ pursuit of the issue elevating it to the status of a minor cause celebre. The campaign has recently launched a number of adverts and a petition on change.org with the aim of increasing its visibility still further, though Pringle acknowledges that it could yet be lost among the noise around Brexit.
The four tenets of its plan, which Pringle argues are mutually reinforcing, are designed to be as uncontroversial as possible to bypass any potential opposition:
Legislate so that all paid-for political adverts can be viewed by the public
Have compulsory watermarks to show the origin of online adverts
Create a body to regulate political advertising
Require all factual claims used in political adverts to be pre-cleared
Of those, Pringle says he expects the compulsory watermark to come into effect relatively soon, as it’s “something the electoral commission have been calling for for a while”. However, while he believes the implementation of the framework and the creation of a new body or the expansion of the remit of an existing body is ‘minutiae’, it’s not necessarily a view that’s shared even by supporters of political ad reform.
Temple believes that the practical issues around either setting up a new body that only comes together around elections, or the refocusing of an existing regulator, presents practical problems that would be difficult to overcome. Given the short timescale around elections, pre-clearing ads or tackling the thorny issue of free speech around political ads that are opinion based appear to be intractable problems.
He is, however, in favour of a system of labelling that informs the public that has been “seduced” by the effectiveness of bodies like the ASA in regulating commercial advertising:
“Surely we should just make people aware with a little disclaimer down at the bottom that can go on a printed page, on leaflets, online, that this is a political advertising that has not been regulated. We've been seduced by the TV, by the papers, that when we read an ad [we have] consumer protection.”
Dennehy-Neil also believes that, while the flashpoints around election interference have made it more likely that parliamentarians would consider political ad reform, convincing them to do so is another matter entirely:
“It's been suggested to politicians for years that even if they don't have a legal regulatory framework that they could all sign up to codes of practice and they have never wanted to do that. Turkeys don't want to vote for Christmas. I don't think you can on the one hand be rightly concerned about protecting our democracy and making sure it's not subject to inappropriate influence and on the other not have any regulation around political advertising.”
Despite that, she believes that any framework for political ad reform must necessarily come from parliament itself, instead of being delegated to platforms and publishers.
Pringle agrees, noting that while journalists like Carole Cadwalladr and Peter Jukes are doing a “fantastic job” holding the platforms to account, “the people who are more culpable than the platforms... are the political parties who have refused any form of regulation over years and years.”
He is heartened by the actions of the DCMS Select Committee into Disinformation and Fake News, which are due to publish a report early in December and which he believes is likely to come out for political ad reform, noting that “Damian Collins has said that he likes the idea of creating a code for political advertising in much the same way that there is a code for advertising set by CAP.”
Pringle says that while the attention paid to a lack of accountability around political ads, and the issues around election interference and Cambridge Analytica will inevitably die down, the CRPA are attempting to capitalise on the mood and affect those changes. While some of the practical problems around reform do not yet have workable solutions, those flashpoints make political advertising reform more likely now than ever.