Advertising Politics World

Why political advertising needs a code of conduct

By Alex Tait | Founder

August 14, 2018 | 8 min read

Damian Collins called yesterday for a new code in political advertising. Despite its low key launch this should be of great significance for everyone in the UK.

Political ads

Political advertising must follow a code of conduct says the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising

As marketing practitioners, we feel marketers and the marketing trade press have historically shied away from the issues in political advertising: the former perhaps feeling that politics is too polarising, and the latter suspecting that the topic isn’t of great interest to their readers.

We at the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising, set up by practitioners in May, have found almost everyone we’ve spoken to in the marketing industry is supportive of change. People find it hard not to be when they realise political advertising is almost unregulated, in stark contrast to consumer advertising which is subject to strict rules enforced by the Advertising Standards Authority. From the conversations we’ve had, few people realise this.

Now, however, the trade bodies are becoming vocal on the topic. ISBA, the UK ad trade body, that gave us a supporting statement at launch today gives full endorsement of our four point plan. It states “political advertising in the digital era has the potential to be a powerful force for good. To ensure this promise is fulfilled now is the time for it to be more closely regulated. The creation of an independent oversight body would strengthen trust in our democratic system by demanding higher levels of transparency in terms of origin and content. We also support calls for limiting political advertising to registered campaigns during election periods.”

Many other companies and industry bodies have also joined the Coalition, including the online retail organisation IMRG and econsultancy.

Separately, the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, the trade body representing ad agencies, has been active, reinforcing the point we’ve made about messaging transparency and also calling initially for a ban on microtargeted ads. In a subsequent statement it has agreed with the recent Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) report recommendation that “a minimum limit for the number of voters sent individual political messages should be agreed, at a national level”.

As we mentioned in our last blog, when we started out there were, as far as we knew, no comprehensive plans for how political advertising should be reformed. There were numerous areas we could address, but we decided the best way to achieve our aim was to formulate four points we felt would have the biggest impact, but which it would be difficult for anyone to disagree with. Additionally, we made sure this was a not-for-profit initiative and cross-party in principle. Wherever possible, we would source examples from both sides of the debate. Ultimately, the reason was that, for change to happen, it would need to be agreed to by the main political parties.

You can find further detail here, but out four points were:

1. Legislate so that all paid-for political adverts can be viewed by the public

2. Have compulsory watermarks to show the origin of online adverts

3. Create a body to regulate political advertising

4. Require all factual claims used in political adverts to be pre-cleared.

Recommendations concerning political advertising have been made in their reports over the last few months by the Electoral Commission and the Independent Commission on Referendums.

Messaging transparency, compulsory watermarks and imprints have been covered in these recommendations, the latter being included as issues for consideration in the code proposed yesterday.

A recommendation that would represent a significant step forward, but which hadn’t so far been made anywhere else, is one we’ve been advocating since launch. That is, to introduce regulation of factual claims. Damian Collins proposed yesterday that the “Advertising Standards Authority should rule on factual claims in political ads, requiring that there be evidence to substantiate the claims being made.”

As we mentioned in our response to the report of the DCMS, this recommendation would bring political advertising into line with the consumer ad regulation set out in the Committee of Advertising Practice Code (CAP, which excludes broadcasting) and the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice Code (BCAP ).

The suggestion that the Advertising Standards Authority could regulate political advertising is one that the DCMS will gather evidence on in the Autumn. Certainly we’ve advocated that there needs to be one body with oversight of all political advertising: either the Electoral Commission, the Advertising Standards Authority, the Election Committee of Ofcom or some alternative body.

Our four points seemed very ambitious when we first put them forward, but all our recommendations are now covered in the code proposed yesterday.

The article by Damian Collins makes three other recommendations. We think “the restriction of political advertising to registered campaigns during the regulated election period” is very sensible.

The idea is also floated of a Competition and Markets Authority investigation into the selling of advertising on social media in order to understand the real levels of fake accounts on these sites. If these accounts are being sold to advertisers as real, but are in fact fake, it would raise the question of whether these audiences are being missold to advertisers. There could potentially be a role for JICWEBS (the Joint Industry Committee for Web Standards) and potentially for TAG (the Trustworth Accountability Group) to input into this process, which are the industry bodies responsible for digital ad fraud.

The third recommendation in the article concerns the targeting of digital ads in line with a recommendation in the DCMS report that “Facebook users should have the right to opt out of being included in customised lookalike audiences, where Facebook sells audiences to political campaigns based on people whose data profile is most similar to their existing custom audience of known supporters.”

We anticipated that getting agreement on how targeting should be reformed may not be straightforward. We’d agree with the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising that covering in scope only Facebook and one type of targeting is too narrow. It should certainly cover the entire digital marketing ecosystem. Similar capabilities exist in the programmatic display space, where personal data sets are also vast, for example via Google and Oath, as well as Acxiom and Oracle Data Cloud to name but a few. We agree that a principle-based approach across all targeted media would make sense to future-proof this recommendation against the inevitable developments in targeting technology.

The other danger we’d caution against is narrowing the scope of the code to the point where it is merely “a new code for political advertising on the internet”. We should take the opportunity to modernise political advertising regulation holistically. Any regulation around factual claims, for example, needs to work across all media, not just digital.

Damian Collins’ call yesterday was a big step towards ensuring that the rules for combating the spread of disinformation and for promoting healthy political debate keep up with new communication technologies.

In our view, the focus should now be on two ways of taking this forward. First the industry needs to deliver and build on Damian Collins’ code of political advertising. We need to ensure that the various recommendations are brought into focus in a way that enables practical implementation in keeping with the spirit of the principles.

We’d recommend that all sectors of the industry play their part, through the relevant trade bodies, in taking ownership and driving this forward. To maximise appropriate engagement the marketing trade press also needs to raise awareness of the need for this programme of change in how we run political campaigning in the UK.

Second, and most importantly of course, is that we see the advisory recommendations in the recent reports and article yesterday transformed into statutory legislation.

To let slip the opportunity of addressing these issues robustly would be a massive disservice to our democratic process and to future generations.

Alex Tait is a co-founder of the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising

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