Unregulated political advertising erodes trust in all advertising

Just because something is difficult, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. Political advertising needs urgent regulation.

Trust in advertisingThe country will be going to the polls fairly soon, of that I am almost certain. It might be a general election. It might be a referendum. And if the ads popping up on my social feeds are anything to go by, political parties and groups think so too.

This column isn’t about Brexit. But it is about democracy, the void at the heart of it and the impact of that deficit on brand advertising.

Put simply, we need to regulate political advertising. There are no rules. You can say anything – it doesn’t have to be legal, decent, honest or truthful. You can put a political lie on the side of a bus without any fear of regulatory repercussions.

At least those lies are told in the open – they are there for all to see and for anyone to rebut. It is the digital form of political advertising that is the real threat to democracy and to advertising.

Micro-targeting is used to enormous effect. Many brands would give their eye teeth for the kind of impact digital political campaigns have, but then political campaigns don’t have to play by the same rules as brand campaigns. They don’t have to play by any rules.

As brand advertisers we depend on consumer trust. If they stop believing us, we might as well pack up and go home.

Our democracy is based on transparency. We have to be confident that we know what politicians are saying, which political parties they belong to and who funds them. We have strict rules about campaign spending, so it is limited and accounted for.

But where politics is less about party programmes and more about single issues, such as Brexit, lots of groups have an interest in influencing voters, which these days is easily done by buying digital ads.

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While Facebook should be commended for opening up its ad library, where you can see who is advertising what and to whom, this greater transparency doesn’t always give us one important piece of the picture – who is paying for the ad. You can see plenty about who is advertising, and who is being reached by particular adverts. But it is still not always clear who is paying.

We know how important this is, thanks not least to journalist Carole Cadwalladr. There is a recognition in many political circles that donors in the shadows are circumventing scrutiny. Damian Collins, chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport parliamentary select committee, is clear that legislation is urgently needed to drag our electoral law into the 21st century.

Yet the Government, which says it wants the UK to have the toughest internet laws, has taken no action. It is a hugely complex task, there are lots of players and lots of platforms, and none of the regulators are queuing up to take on the job. But all other advertising is regulated and just because something is difficult, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.

Action must be taken urgently. I would advocate entrusting the good folk at the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) with the task. They might not thank me but I genuinely believe that, with increased funding, they would get the job done.

Even if you are less passionate about the workings of our democracy than I am, you will care about trust in advertising. Unregulated political advertising pollutes our pond. It erodes trust in all advertising.

People won’t know that we work really hard to meet the ASA’s high standards and that if we breach them we face serious consequences. Consumers will throw us all in the same bucket and assume we play fast and loose with the truth like some political campaigners. This is bad for all of us.

Brands need to make their voices heard, individually or through ISBA, and insist that the Government takes action. As brand advertisers we depend on consumer trust. If they stop believing us, we might as well pack up and go home.

p.s. If you are not convinced about the perniciousness of political digital advertising, can I suggest you download Who Targets Me – it will be an eye-opening experience.

Tanya Joseph is director of external relations at Nationwide