As TV advertising specialists, we know the compliance process inside out. The guidelines enforced by ASA in the UK are rigid and often restrictive and certain industries are under very strict controls about what they can and can’t say. For instance, the gambling industry, in which we have made countless campaigns over the past number of years, is subject to some of the heaviest restrictions of all. In our ads, we need to be very clear that players could have a chance to win something, there’s absolutely no room to imply that a player will win money.
So it’s with a mixture of confusion and resentment that we watch political campaigning build upon wild speculation, conjecture and false promises. It seems that if you want political power you can say pretty much anything you want, with no recourse….no one needs reminding about that big red bus promising £350mill for the NHS.
With that in mind, and with another trip to the ballot box coming up fast, we felt the need to explain why we think political campaigns need stricter regulation.
Political campaigning IS advertising
Currently non-broadcast political advertising is seen as being exempt from the ASA code. This is partly due to freedom of speech considerations and partly due to the practical difficulties in enforcement. What’s more, party political broadcasts on TV are not even classed as advertising and therefore don’t fall under the remit of ASA.
Because of this, political ads regularly contravene the rulings every other advertiser has to comply with. These campaigns are not obliged to be ‘honest, decent and truthful’ as commercial companies are. When you think about what’s at stake, it’s clear to us that political messaging shouldn’t be left unregulated due to the semantics of classification. The same reasonable premise behind ASA’s codes should be applied. After all if there are rules to determine how people are influenced when deciding on which washing up liquid to buy surely there should also be rules when people are deciding upon the leadership of an entire country!
A self-regulatory system doesn’t work
After an electoral committee investigated how political advertising should be regulated, they agreed, for both practical and ideological reasons, that ASA could not be held responsible in this area. The main parties would have to form some sort of consensus on the best way to handle the issue.
So essentially political parties are morally responsible to agree on and follow a code of conduct. That’s right, in the absence of independent controls, the only thing we are left to cling to in the hope that political campaigning follows some set of rules are the morals of politicians. Morals and politicians….let that sink in.
Call us crazy, but we think it seems a little absurd that politicians are allowed to simply shrug off the issue and continue without any regulation whatsoever, just because they don’t like the idea of it.
Freedom of speech does not grant the right to deceive
It is partly because we need to protect freedom of speech that political advertising is not strictly regulated. But freedom of speech is meant to ensure we protect diversity of opinion and the individual’s right to express that in a reasonable manner. This exemption should not be seen as an excuse to stomp all over the reasonable moral framework that ASA has been built on.
Perhaps political ads should be granted more leeway in certain areas – but they should not be given free rein to manipulate audiences using underhand tactics.
Democracy requires free and fair elections
It’s a central tenet of democracy that voters should be entitled to free and fair elections. But if the public’s decisions can be shaped and influenced through unregulated advertising, is this really the case?
Voters should be given all the details they need to make an informed decision, off their own back. Instead we see misinformation proliferated and highly emotive subjects handled in ways that could easily be construed as manipulative. TV is an incredibly powerful tool, but there are now numerous alternative avenues for political communication on screen, which there weren’t when party political broadcasts first started. Televised debates have become the norm, and current affairs/news programming gives ample opportunity for politicians to speak up – and be as frank and opinionated as they like in that context.
Do they still really deserve dedicated broadcast time to serve up what have essentially become unregulated advertisements? We think not.
Party political broadcasts are a form of advertising
Political advertising campaigns is banned on TV. But you wouldn’t think it when you watch party political broadcasts in the run up to voting day.
They were never intended to be ‘advertisement’ when they were first introduced, as a BBC initiated concept to inform the public of party manifestos. But those we see now are far removed from the early videos of politicians reading the back of a campaign leaflet. Watch the 2017 party political broadcasts for the Lib Dems or Green Party, and they scream ‘advert!’. Clearly produced by advertising agencies, stylized and made emotive in order to influence. They absolutely meet the definition of an advert, and are not primarily concerned with communicating policies in black and white.
Just because the media space wasn’t paid for doesn’t mean it’s not an ad.
The blurred line between editorial content and advertising
ASA rules state that ‘advertisements must be obviously distinguishable from editorial content’. However, by mimicking the style of a news program or documentary, party political broadcasts intentionally lose that obvious distinction. They do have to open with an announcement that they are party political broadcasts – but from there, they could easily be mistaken for content.
If you switched on the TV a few seconds into the Conservatives 2017 broadcast, with the Prime Minister giving a speech from outside 10 Downing Street, you’d be forgiven for assuming that’s the news: which gives the messages within it a great deal more credibility than they might otherwise deserve.
Advertisements must not mislead
The campaigning leading up to the EU referendum displayed a fondness for misinformation on all fronts. The now infamous ‘Leave’ campaign poster declaring the UK could “fund the NHS instead of sending £350m per week to the EU”, as an example, would never have had clearance as a commercial advertisement. Because it wasn’t true.
As a statement on ASA.org.uk reads: “Had they been advertisements for products or services by commercial companies, we at the ASA would have performed our usual role holding the groups that ran them to account […] confirming they were decent, honest and truthful.”
Advertisements must not cause offence
As former Karmarama ECD and Faster Horses founder, Sam Walker, put it: “We’re not allowed to be racist, sexist or homophobic when we make ads. Why then is it OK for a political campaign to stoke racial hatred by showing the solely non-white faces of hundreds of Syrian refugees going to Slovakia, nowhere near the [UK] border, with the headline ‘Breaking Point’?”
We appreciate that freedom of speech must permit the likes of UKIP to express sentiments that many might find offensive – but there needs to be a much stricter line drawn to prevent provocative messaging and fear-mongering in political campaigns.
Political campaign regulations: Parties should be held to account for what their advertisements promise
If a gambling company wants to promote an online casino game, for instance, their advertising needs to be very carefully worded. You might have a chance to win x, but it’s a strictly enforced code that ensures no-one thinks they definitely will. But political parties are allowed to infer these sorts of guarantees.
Labour’s 2017 party political broadcast states “ Labour will stand up for you and deliver a better, fairer Britain where prosperity is shared, where everyone is fully rewarded for their work and where a home to rent or buy is affordable.” But if you vote to have that promise fulfilled and Britain doesn’t become ‘better or fairer’ and you still can’t afford a home; what comeback do you have? Absolutely none.
Political parties should therefore disclaim their objectives in the same way a commercial company would. They can talk about their aims, but they shouldn’t be allowed to make lofty promises that won’t necessarily come to fruition.
Commercially, consumers have a right to return – voters do not!
It’s a slightly separate point, but one worth making, and we think it rounds off our argument nicely.
In the commercial world, consumers have the right to return a product if it doesn’t meet the required standards. If it’s not what was promised, they can reverse their decisions. Or even if consumers just change their mind and want to retract a purchase, their right to do so is protected. This isn’t the case with an election. Once the vote is cast, that’s that. So the decision making process in this instance should be defended vigorously, as everyone needs to get it right first time.
Recent years have seen political parties push the envelope further and further in their attempts to influence voters and without stricter regulation we’re not sure where it all stops. We believe political campaigns, and everything that includes (from party broadcasts, advertisements, debates, anything with the power to influence) should be held to certain standards, checks and balances and possibly should be even more heavily regulated than the commercial world.