What a summer it has been. Sun, almost every day. Rain arriving just in time to save us from drought. And then sun again. For me, it has been perfect.
This summer has also been glorious because for the first time in four years we haven’t had to vote for anything (apart from Love Island and I spoiled my ballot). An election and referendum free summer. Bliss. And I say this as a self-confessed election junkie. A bit like a storm chaser, I have sought polls out. No plebiscite at home, no problem. I would grab my passport and get on a flight to find a ballot box. Couldn’t get enough of them. But honestly, the trifecta of national polls in 2015, 2016 and 2017 broke me. I needed space and time to recover.
This summer has restored me. It has also given me lots of time to think about how we might restore public faith in the political process. If I have become jaded, then the general public is disillusioned and distrustful. And that is bad for us all. We all need our democracy to work and to be effective it needs to enjoy the confidence of the public.
It is easy to pin everything on the personality of individual politicians: he is weak, she is hectoring, he is too ambitious, she doesn’t care. But even when those actors leave the stage, the distrust remains. So what can we do? And what has it got to do with brands and marketing?
Consumers do not differentiate between political and non-political advertising, so when they see lies being told by political campaigns, they assume that advertisers must be lying too.
Well, one thing that could change things dramatically would be to regulate political advertising in the same way the rest of advertising is regulated.
There is no law against making factually incorrect or untrue statements during election campaigns or referendums, unless they refer to an individual candidate. So you can pretty much run a ‘pants on fire’ campaign and so long as you don’t bad mouth an individual, no one will stop you. Certainly neither the Electoral Commission nor the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) see it as their role to monitor or police campaign lies and disinformation.
I think all political advertising should be “legal, decent, honest and truthful” – to borrow the ASA’s mantra – and political advertisers should be brought to account if it isn’t.
I am not worried about claims made on the side of a bus or on massive out of home sites across the country. The very fact they are so visible makes them less of a problem in this respect. The other side has a chance to rebut any claims and voters can make up their own minds.
No, I am more worried – very worried – about online campaigning. Those micro-targeted ads or bot-generated content that pop up on social media feeds which play (or is it prey?) on one’s prejudices and serve up messages to persuade us to vote for one thing or another, one party or another, one person or another. No one but the intended recipient sees them and, unlike most other election collateral, they don’t have to bear the name of the party or organisation that is paying for them.
Brands should care about this. Not just because transparency and democracy are important but because fake news and mendacious political campaigning are polluting our space, particularly our digital space. Consumer trust in digital platforms is already shaky. Consumers do not differentiate between political and non-political advertising, so when they see lies being told by political campaigns, they assume that advertisers must be lying too. The perception of perfidy is pervasive.
Who can stop the rot? Neither the Electoral Commission nor ASA is mad keen to catch this hot potato. I can completely understand their reluctance from a logistical point of view (the often short notice compounded by the relatively short length of the campaign period make resourcing a nightmare). I am even sympathetic to their averseness to having to tell political campaign managers that they have to pull an ad. But something has to change.
And the Electoral Commission agrees. Its own research reveals that voters are influenced by online posts and ads. They are becoming more likely to engage in humorous material posted online, regardless of the trustworthiness of the source and without necessarily making the connection that it is intended to influence their voting decision. Earlier this summer the Commission described such campaigns as “a problem when they are used to deceive voters about a campaigner’s identity or their true level of support, or used to abuse people”.
Its response is to place the responsibility on social media platforms to check that people or organisations who pay for political advertising in the UK are legally permitted to do so. It has called on the platforms to deliver their proposals for online databases of political adverts in time for elections next year.
It is a start but I would like to see the more direct accountability placed on the campaigns themselves. Just as it is on brands.