What should a political ad code look like?

Alex Tait and Benedict Pringle have set up an independent not for profit The Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising advocating modernising the rules around political advertising. To read more about the background to this initiative please visit https://reformpoliticaladvertising.org/background/

By Alex Tait. Originally published in The Drum.

Last month MP Damian Collins called for a code for political advertising to be in place by the next elections in May 2019. This is what the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising thinks it could look like.

We live in turbulent political times and would like to play our part in moving this deadline forward if possible, in view of the possibility of other elections being called in the meantime.

When we started the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising last May there was, as far as we know, no comprehensive plan for political advertising reform. Since then several sets of advisory recommendations have appeared, from the Independent Commission on Referendums, the Electoral Commission, and in an interim report from the parliamentary Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee’s Inquiry on Disinformation and ‘Fake News’. Some of these recommendations support what we’ve been advocating, and some are broader in scope than our four-point plan.

As we’ve mentioned before, we chose a four-point plan to advocate four key interventions that would have the greatest impact but also be most likely to achieve consensus. In the light of Damian Collins’ call and of the other, sometimes contradictory, recommendations that have emerged, we would like to move forward by proposing a systematisation of the various recommendations and what the code should cover. Damian’s article in Campaign where he called for the code can be read here.

To help contribute to the government’s response to the DCMS’s interim report recommendations due shortly and the Committee’s final findings, which are to be published later in the year, we’ve attempted to draw the various recommendations together (which you can read here). We’d welcome feedback on how far we have succeeded in doing this. 

Before going through our suggestions, we would like to set down some principles we see as fundamental.

There has been an understandable focus in the recommendations on digital, and there is no doubt that regulation of political advertising is in woeful need of being brought up to date with the digital world we now live in. Legislation hasn’t been changed since Tony Blair came to power which tells you how out of date it is. If you think of regulation around factual claims as an example regulation needs, however, to apply to all media rather than only to digital.

When tackling digital specifically several recommendations made so far have singled out Facebook as being in need of reform. While Facebook is obviously a very important actor, the digital marketing ecosystem is complex as anyone that works in marketing will testify. Social platforms are important, but the need is for regulation to be updated to cover the entire digital marketing ecosystem if we are to counter disinformation and fake news effectively.

We’d add that advertisers increasingly look at their communications in terms of a ‘customer journey’ that takes account of all the touchpoints with consumers in the fragmented media landscape we now inhabit. We agree with the Independent Commission on Referendums that ‘An inquiry should be conducted into the regulation of political advertising across print, broadcast and online media, to consider what form regulation should take for each medium and whether current divergences of approach remain justified.’ For example, account needs to be taken not only of paid adverts but of what marketers call ‘owned media’: all the communication channels under an entity’s control, such as websites, blogs, email – and also ‘earned media’, such as publicity resulting from editorial influence of various kinds.

So, to return to our four-point plan, we recommend:

  • Imprints – all advertising with a political purpose should include a clearly identifiable imprint that tells you who paid for the advertising and whom it is promoting.
  • Factual claims – a regulator should rule on factual claims in political ads, requiring that there be evidence to substantiate the claims being made. We believe these should be pre-cleared, as is currently the case with TV ads via Clearcast.
  • Messaging transparency – a searchable repository of online political advertising should be developed, including information on when each advertisement was posted, at whom it was targeted, and how much was spent on it. There should be a requirement for all political advertising work to be listed for public display so that, even if the work does not require regulatory clearance, it is accountable, clear, and available for all to see. It should be run and managed independently of the advertising industry and political parties.

In response to points raised in Collins’ call for a political ad code we’d propose covering additional points he has made in the following way:

  • Political advertising should be restricted to registered campaigns during the regulated election period.
  • Targeting. This is potentially a contentious issue but we believe there are three main options.
  1. Comply with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation and upcoming ePrivacy Directive.
  2. Ban micro-targeting in digital generally (not only in social media).
  3. Specifically ban certain types of targeting. We believe the suggestion of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport that look-alike targeting should be banned does not go far enough, and that to achieve the Committee’s goal other types of targeting would need to be ruled out. A limit to the number of messages sent has also been suggested.

These above core suggestions could fairly easily provide the basis for a code similar to the codes that cover consumer advertising. For example, the BCAP (for broadcast) and CAP (non broadcast) codes. The detail of how it should be implemented can be decided by whoever is appointed as the regulator. Collins has suggested that this should be the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) but it could also be a new regulatory body or other bodies such as the Electoral Commission.

As a body of practitioners drawn from the marketing and advertising community, we are more than happy to help with these next steps. Regulatory change is often resisted by those involved in marketing activity, but there is a consensus among our members that implementing this kind of regulation would certainly be no more onerous than many similar changes the marketing industry has readily accepted during the past decade.

The overwhelmingly important task is to restore integrity and trust in our electoral processes. 

We are a cross-party initiative and not for profit.

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

You can follow it at @clearpolitic5

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