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Some practical suggestions on how we need to change political advertising for a digital world

By Alex Tait, Founder

April 19, 2018 | 11 min read

There has been a lot of debate about how political advertising should be regulated, but regulators have been reluctant to become involved. However, several factors have contributed to a growing appetite for regulation, the latest being the Cambridge Analytica and Aggregate IQ involvement in the US election.

Photo by Elliott Stallion on Unsplash

Photo by Elliott Stallion on Unsplash

We’ve seen politicians in the US put forward their own reforms, with the Honest Ads Act aimed at “increasing transparency and accountability for online political ads” and to prevent “foreign involvement” in their elections. Facebook and Twitter over the last few weeks have also come on board supporting it too. In fact the UK advertising trade body Isba also recently produced a position statement supporting transparency and regulation for political advertising.

Ultimately, however, as the ASA has argued, we need consensus among the main parties that political advertising should be regulated. Surely now the time is right for us to lobby collectively for tangible steps to modernise UK regulation in this area.

Advertisers understandably are reluctant to get drawn into the debate – most are in fact unable to do so due to direction from the companies they work for. It is also hard to engage in a discussion about political advertising without assumptions being drawn on your political persuasion or motivations for doing so. However, as an advertising and marketing practitioner with varied experience of working at diverse brands as well as with the various advertising trade bodies, I want to remain as unpartisan as possible with any proposed solutions.

But before we look for solutions, let us take a look at the context. The ASA’s website gives a good summary of the current regulatory approach: “political advertisements are banned from being broadcast on TV under the Communications Act 2003 (instead parties are given airtime via party political broadcasts which are not classed as advertising). Meanwhile, political ads in non-broadcast media (posters, newspapers etc.) whose principal function is to influence voters in local, regional, national or international elections or referendums are exempt from the advertising code.”

In 1998, the Neill Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended establishing a regulatory body to oversee political advertising, but didn’t implement the suggestion. In 1999, the Committee of Advertising Practice decided not to include political advertising from the codes.

The ASA website explains why this was the outcome. The “factors included the short, fixed timeframes over which elections run (ie the likelihood that complaints subject to ASA investigation would be ruled upon after an election had taken place). Also, the absence of consensus between the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat Parties to bring political advertising wholly within the scope of the code played its part in CAP taking the decision to exclude all of it”.

I’d argue that this is a pretty unsatisfactory outcome. Parties not being able to reach consensus does not mean that important principles of democracy are not being undermined. I also think there must be creative solutions possible to the tight timescale of UK elections.

It is surely useful to list what seems generally accepted as necessary for our democracy to work.

The system works on the basis that citizens elect representatives to form a governing body: in the UK’s case, parliament. A political system is needed for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections; ensuring active participation of citizens in politics and civic life; protecting the human rights of all citizens; and upholding the rule of law, which means that laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens. Fundamental to these are the notions of informed decision-making and accountability. In order to decide how to cast our vote, for example, we need to be able to evaluate the record, achievements and future policies of political parties and individuals standing for election. In order to do so, we need to be in a position to weigh information giving us as truthful a picture as possible. This is at the heart of many of the anxieties expressed in recent years about political activism and highly targeted communications.

What is required to “weigh information”? I’d argue the citizen needs to be in a position to understand what evidence or perspective informs claims, who is expressing them and what their interests are. The problems around claims and assertions have always been there. However, issues left unresolved almost two decades ago have been compounded by developments in technology, as illustrated pretty well just last week during Facebook’s testimony on Capitol Hill.

Highly segmented digital communications, or “micro-targeting” as the mainstream media have taken to calling it, is something that didn’t exist back then, not in any medium or to the extent that, for example, it is claimed that the Trump campaign exploited it. Trump’s digital campaign manager Brad Parscale claimed he ran 50 to 60 thousand variations of Facebook ads each day during the trump campaign.

I don’t think “micro-targeting” in political advertising is necessarily a problem in itself. All communication assumes a listener or an audience – the problem is one of accountability and transparency and if you are able to guarantee it. In previous political campaigns the numerous segmented digital messages deployed in the ads were not open to scrutiny by journalists, the law or voters. Some of the press have dubbed this lack of transparency in political campaigning “dark advertising”. It obviously contrasts starkly with a political press ad or a party political TV broadcast whose affiliation is clear for everyone to see. Theoretically at least with a lack of scrutiny you could promise one thing to one group of voters and also send the opposite message to another segment.

OK, so what possible solutions am I proposing?

Market-wide messaging transparency

The Honest Ads Act contains some good ideas we could adopt in the UK. It stipulates that platforms with over 50 million unique users must maintain a fairly granular public record of political ads, including the copy and target audience, for advertisers spending over $500. In case of bad actors seeking to exploit loopholes in this governance, it also lays the onus on the platforms to “ensure reasonable efforts are made to keep foreign nationals from buying ads,” and it expands the regulatory definition of “public communications” to include digital services, so that they are subject to the same rules as govern broadcast media.

Facebook has responded pretty well to this. To ensure transparency in “micro-targeting” it claims its proposed new system will allow anyone to view all the ads being shown by a political page. For this to work as well and consistently as possible, however, we should surely develop practical industry standards rather than just platform-specific solutions. Facebook, Google and Twitter do, of course, attract a huge amount of spend, but there are many other players out there that need to be caught within the scope of these reforms too. Some products are specifically positioned for political purposes – Group M’s Xasis political product which was being promoted to the main parties ahead of the US election, is one example that springs to mind.

Expanding regulatory governance

From a messaging perspective and for advertising more generally, the argument is put forward that the ASA can’t adjudicate fast enough and that any ruling would come when an election was already over. Surely, however, there must be some creative solutions possible to ensure that the ASA’s criteria of “legality, decency, honesty and truthfulfulness”, which apply to all other forms of advertising, should apply also to something as important as political advertising? Most of the public, I’d wager, think it already does.

The “simple” solution would be to expand the ASA remit, assuming, of course, that the political parties can be induced to agree to this. It would be less than perfect, owing to the issue of timeliness, but it would at least hold campaigns and their claims to account.

However, could solutions be borrowed from those found by all other advertisers, who face similar issues in their marketing communications? Thinking back over my own experience in various sectors as an advertiser, I wonder if an option could be for the facts or claims in political ads to be signed off by a regulatory body in advance of an election period? This could be the ASA or a specific body as originally recommended by the Neill Committee on Standards in Public Life. It would of course need adequate resourcing to enable this.

For example, from my experience in the finance sector, the compliance sign-off process occurred with an internal regulatory team, and this lead time was then built into the communications planning process. For executions that included multiple variants of a creative – for example, multi-variate testing of campaign landing pages or dynamic creative methodologies are agreed with the team to ensure that processes are practical and accurate.

Agility planning

The argument is put forward that regulation is impossible because of the fast pace of election campaigns and the way they need to react to events. Again, planning to maximise “agility” in order to be able to react to events is a problem most brands face. The solution is often to develop and sign off ads in advance for events that you know are going to happen on a specific date (for example the Oscars), or for events that are likely to happen although you can’t know exactly when (like the hottest day of the year). This can fit into a regulatory sign-off process and in both cases you can develop ads for different scenarios. Parallels for a political campaign can easily be drawn with the way retailers plan scenarios around weather for a bank holiday (with barbecues and lawnmowers at the ready if the weather proves to be hot).

Notice in ads

I can’t think of a political campaigning situation in paid media that wouldn’t be covered by the above approaches. If there is one, then at least a disclaimer could be added to that ad advising that the facts have not been verified, rather like the health warnings in cigarette advertising. Even if an argument can be found against this, it is surely worth weighing such an argument’s merits against the benefit to the rights of the electorate.

Clarifying what does and doesn’t need to be regulated

It is sometimes argued that there is in any case little objectivity in any political advertising. That seems like devil’s advocacy.

There is no greater advocate of responsible advertising and marketing – my involvement in the industry over many years is testament to that. I put the above points forward to stimulate debate and in the hope of seeing them developed further. Brands talk a lot about adapting their models for marketing in a digital world and I believe I am proposing no more than that for political campaigning. The difference is, of course, that here there is no CEO or board to understand how the landscape has changed and drive the change forward. I’d argue this needs engagement from the industry and trade bodies to secure political buy-in to agreed principles. Then industry needs to work with relevant participants in their marketing ecosystem to identify robust and consistent principles to execute implementation.

Lord Smith, previous head of the ASA (who also advocates the regulation of claims in political advertising), argued as he left the role that the driving force in his leadership at the ASA had been the pursuit of the “truth” in advertising. Surely there is an even greater need for that when it comes to delivering what the public most want at the present time: free and fair elections.

Alex Tait is the founder of the media, content and digital consultancy Entropy. He tweets @astait


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