Should political advertising be regulated?

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(From L-R) Oliver Dowden CBE MP, Lord Black of Brentwood, Graham Temple Chairman IPM, Guy Parker CEO ASA, and Lord Saatchi.

We all know that political advertising can be brilliantly powerful, as we saw in Lyndon Johnson’s Daisy campaign, which took America by storm and got the country talking during his US presidential election campaign back in 1964. But the truth is, until Brexit occurred, many of us didn’t know that political advertising isn't regulated.

There isn’t any accountability or regulatory body similar to the ASA to check and approve political advertising, in the same way that they check consumer messages; there are no checks on claims and no sign-offs or independent bodies to verify information. In light of this, IPM president Lord Black of Brentwood and I hosted a dinner at The House of Lords earlier this month to discuss the emotive topic of whether political advertising should be regulated, and if so, how and by whom?

The dinner was attended by representatives of its membership and associated industry bodies including CAP/BCAP, The ASA and The AA and held a discussion over views on the regulation of political advertising, or rather the lack of control and regulation of "implied fact" based statements made by political parties.

The Crown Prosecution Service is currently considering a complaint that the Vote Leave campaign misled voters during its referendum campaign on UK membership of the EU, with the claim that membership of the union was costing £350m a week to the UK taxpayer. This claim was repeated despite being ticked off by the UK Statistics Authority – a statement that influenced each of us Brits in our final decision. Under UK electoral law “undue influence” is considered a corrupt practice. Ultimately it will be for Parliament to decide.

Insightful contributions to the debate were provided by Guy Parker, ASA, Lord Saatchi and Oliver Dowden CBE MP, who delivered their address to the assembled IPM members at the House of Lords on the argument of whether this area of politics should be covered in the self-regulatory process in the way that all other advertising is subjected to such as ASA scrutiny.

With views expressed from all sides, including discussing the world of politics being a very different one to the world of businesses whose output is regulated on a day-to-day basis, many views were presented. The debate heard contributions from many guests and these were expertly stewarded by Lord Black. Some argued that the political opinion has the right to decimate the opposition by whatever means possible but with the clear understanding that the world in Westminster is one that should be respected. With views that supported the need for clarity on facts, some opinion carried the motion of truth and honesty for a voting population that was swayed heavily by media.

Having been part of the discussion and explored both sides of the debate and the opinions expressed, my personal belief (not necessarily that of the IPM) is that there should be an independent body who can validate the facts and claims made by all political parties in their advertising for the benefit of the voting public. If this is impractical logistically then I would encourage an alternative be considered, which would be for political advertising to carry a legal disclaimer warning in much the same way as the used by financial, alcohol and gambling organisations.

Discussion about the complexities of democratic argument in the overall political debate for the public also played a large part of the evening, but there was no doubting that there were equally strong arguments that brands face the same competitive indifferences but need to deal with this within a tight self-regulative system to protect the consumer from misleading claims.

Closing the debate, Lord Black commented that the important topic of regulation in political advertising had well and truly started.

Political adverting could state that the facts and claims made have not been verified by an independent body or something to that effect. Ultimately we need to ensure that the voting public is provided with accurate information in order to make an informed choice and following the recent Brexit debacle, the time is probably now!

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