Why politicians are bringing the ad industry into disrepute

T here are two problems with political advertising. The first is that some political parties are richer than others, and so can afford more of it. While Party A buys up all the hoardings on one side of an unlevel playing field, Party B can only afford the sites behind the goals, and Party C has to make do with a handful on the side the television cameras don’t see.

The other problem is that consumers – that is, voters – can’t believe a word of political advertisements because political parties are the only advertisers officially permitted to tell lies.

This latter problem is currently exercising both the advertising and the political establishments. Lord Neill’s committee on standards in public life, which is inquiring into the funding of political parties, has provided a catalyst for those in the advertising industry who believe the present situation is a messy compromise which risks bringing advertising in general into disrepute.

The problem was highlighted during the run-up to the general election, when the Conservatives’ “Demon Eyes” poster of Tony Blair provoked a series of complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority.

They were upheld – but only because the Authority decided the advertisement portrayed the future Prime Minister in a way that was “offensive” without permission. Political ads, like any others, have to be “decent”. That’s because, in theory, they must abide by the advertising Code of Practice.

In fact, however, they are exempt from some of the code’s most important provisions: those relating to honesty and fairness. Political parties don’t have to prove any claims they make in their advertising, can say what they like about rival parties and their policies, and can be inaccurate or ambiguous, or exaggerate with impunity.

The justification: it’s up to voters, not a self-appointed, voluntary regulator like the ASA, to decide whether what political parties say is truthful.

But the Advertising Association believes this partial exemption from the code brings all advertising into disrepute, and earlier this month its director-general, Andrew Brown, along with representatives of the Committee of Advertising Practice (which draws up the ASA’s code) told the Neill committee so.

If the political parties won’t agree to abide by the code, they suggest, then a new body should be set up purely to regulate political advertising.

The parties are divided. Labour would apparently be prepared to submit to a new body operating a new code on political advertising, the Tories wouldn’t. They think a new code would be unworkable, and is unnecessary anyway, since voters are quite capable of distinguishing between conventional commercial advertising and political propaganda.

With the two main parties stalemated, a further complication arises because the advertising industry itself is not unanimous. Many would dearly love to be shot of all responsibility for political ads, believing, like the Tories, that the same rules simply can’t be applied.

But privately the ASA – chaired by a former politician, Lord (Bill) Rodgers, one of the founders of the SDP – is divided on the issue. On the one hand some believe the practical problems of incorporating political advertising into the system the ASA administers are simply too great. Particularly at election time, things move far too fast for a body like the ASA, which would have to resort to vetting ads in advance. But trying to blue-pencil political discourse would be asking for trouble.

What’s more, the system the ASA operates is a voluntary one. Self-regulation only works so long as everyone involved agrees to abide by the rules. The moment a political party thought it was getting a raw deal it would simply walk out.

On the other hand, some on the authority (whose members include a university professor of ethics) think it’s plain wrong for anyone, whoever they are, to get away with advertisements which break the rules.

There’s also the question of what should be done about “political” advertising placed by organisations other than political parties. At present these advertisements have to abide by the code, but in so doing they present the ASA with some of its most difficult judgements, as pressure groups like Friends of the Earth and the Vegetarian Society cross swords with lobbyists from the timber or meat industries.

In the ensuing clash of claim and counter-claim, the ASA frequently ends up making arguably subjective decisions – decisions which you could describe as being “political”.

As it is, the ASA won’t take the decision on what to do about party advertising: its job is merely to implement the code drawn up by the CAP. My guess is that those who want nothing to do with political advertising will win at the end of the day.

But it seems equally unlikely that the parties will all agree to submit themselves to a new watchdog, with some new code.

The likeliest outcome seems to be a return to the bad old days when political advertising was completely uncontrolled. And that may not do much for the credibility of advertising in general, or the advertising regulators in particular.

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