As predicted by marketinglaw, the Electoral Commission has come out firmly against any code regulation of party political advertising in the UK. We report and analyse the sometimes shaky reasoning.
Topic: Party political advertising
Who: The Electoral Commission
Where: The UK
When: July 2004
The Electoral Commission has concluded that it would be "inappropriate and impractical" for party political advertising to be covered by either the CAP Code or any other code of practice.
Political advertising fell outside the remit of the CAP Code of Advertising and thus outside any advertising code, in 1999. The Committee on Standards in Public Life had since called for a political advertising code to be drawn up, but the Electoral Commission has concluded after due deliberation that given the "often subjective nature" of political claims, it would not be a good idea to seek to control misleading or untruthful political advertising.
For political ads that might offend against common standards of decency, a code might be in the public interest by protecting against offensive material. However, for many forms of paid-for advertising, the Commission thought existing editorial controls already provided a check on material that might be inappropriate, with newspapers often refusing to carry such material if they felt it went over the line.
There would also be practical difficulties, the Commission reported. For instance, there would be challenges in delivering sufficiently prompt adjudications for them to be of value. Furthermore, even if a workable system could be established, very significant resources would be required to make such a system effective, particularly if the code extended to all political advertising from local to national level. There would also be the danger of politically motivated and/or spurious complaints and since the only realistic sanction for breach of a code would be adverse publicity, the Commission was not convinced that this would be a sufficient deterrent.
Why this matters:
The only political parties who responded to the Commission's call for comments were the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Conservative Party. The first two indicated their support for a code, whilst the Tories said that they would not adhere to one. The Labour party and the SNP failed to respond.
Many of the reasons given by the Commission for its conclusions seem limp. To say that adverse publicity would be an insufficient deterrent is interesting to say the least, given that this is the only real deterrent for most advertisers when it comes to the current CAP/ASA self regulatory system for non-broadcast advertising, regarded by many as the most effective self regulatory advertising control system in the world.
Similarly, to refuse to introduce a system for regulating ads because it would be incapable of delivering swift adjudications is odd, given that the Advertising Standards Authority is not known for its super-rapid processing of complaints. A recent crop of July reports, for example, included without explanation or apology an upheld complaint in respect of a winter bath sale. Granted complaints are normally processed a fair bit quicker than this, but months rather than weeks quite often do pass by before an adjudication is reached and there appears to be no clamour for speedier decisions and no demand that the system be scrapped on this account.
The Commission's report closes with a "recommendation" that political advertisers be guided by the principle in the CAP Code that all marketing communications should be prepared "with a sense of responsibility to consumers and society." High-flown words, but the next general election will be the test of whether political advertising will follow the Commission's "recommendation."