Our non-partisan coalition is calling on the UK Parliament to implement a four-point plan to improve the transparency and accuracy of discourse around British elections by reforming political advertising in the following ways:
These are not the only areas which need to be addressed, but we have selected them as we believe they are both hard to argue against and that they are also high-impact areas for restoring the transparency and accuracy of discourse around our elections.
We are seeking the support of all the major parties in the UK and currently have the support of the Green Party and Independent Group for Change. You can read more about the aims and background of our campaign here.
We have chosen to respond to the select committee questions which directly relate to our key campaign areas below.
The marketing and advertising industries recognise that the advertising landscape has fundamentally changed over the last few decades. This includes the number of channels which can be advertised on and the volume and type of data that can be used for personalised messaging.
The nature of political advertising has changed in parallel and, while consumer advertising regulation has been updated significantly during this period, the fact that there have been almost no changes in the regulation of political advertising and that, indeed, there are almost no rules in place for it, means that in our view there has definitely been a net negative effect on the functioning of democracy.
Introduce compulsory imprints or watermarks to show the origin of online adverts.
Registered political parties and campaign groups are currently required by law to carry an imprint/ watermark on hard copy election materials revealing who is responsible for them. There is no such requirement for digital communications, although the Government did give a favourable response to the DCMS Disinformation & “Fake News” recommendation in respect of this area.
Legislate so that all paid-for political adverts can be viewed by the public.
Our call for a searchable repository for online political advertising was included verbatim in the DCMS Disinformation & Fake News Inquiry recommendations. We believe that, if there is to be transparency for political ads, it is essential that they should be permanently available and that the repository should provide the following information:
- the advert
- the date it was posted
There should be a requirement that all political advertising work should 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. This should be run and managed independently of the advertising industry and political parties.
Various ad libraries exist on the platforms. However, if we want full transparency in political ads we cannot solely rely on these. The ad libraries are of varying quality and Facebook’s, which is largely regarded as the best in class, has been widely criticised. The platforms’ own solutions will never be of consistent quality, and hence will not be easy for researchers, journalists, academics and members of the public to use, owing to differing investment levels and approaches. In addition to the objections voiced in the link above, the libraries are open to criticism on the grounds of the availability of ads. Ads in Twitter’s political ad library, for example, are available for only 7 days.
There are, moreover, many gaps is the ads that are available. New platforms will always be emerging, such as the gaming platform Twitch (which has a Bernie Sanders channel for the 2020 US election), which lack ad libraries.
There are other forms of advertising which are either completely invisible or not readily accessible. For example, one of the most used forms of digital advertising is ‘programmatic advertising’, a type of digital advertising which allows the targeting of an audience across multiple media owners. These ads are almost entirely ‘dark’ or invisible. There are also ads which run on more traditional websites, which do not appear in these libraries and are not easily accessible. These include political adverts run everywhere from Guido Fawkes to sites like Yahoo!, either on certain pages or served right across the websites.
9. To what extent do you think that there are those who are using social media to attempt to undermine trust in the democratic process and in democratic institutions; and what might be the best ways to combat this and strengthen faith in democracy?
10. What might be the best ways of reducing the effects of misinformation on social media platforms?
Give an existing body the power to regulate political advertising content or create a new one to do so.
We need a body to oversee the content of political advertising: there is no regulation of this in the UK, which is a principal cause of the recent problems.
Parliament could expand the remit of the Electoral Commission, the Advertising Standards Authority or the Election Committee of Ofcom — or found an alternative body.
We believe the core of a political ad code should address the areas in our 4-point plan.
An area new since we launched our plan, and which we think must be addressed, is ‘deepfake’ videos which can, for example, generate a realistic video of a politician apparently making a false statement.
We think the following further principles need to apply:
1. While the select committee is focusing on digital, regulation needs to apply, for example in respect of factual claims, to all media rather than only to digital.
2. When tackling digital specifically, it is important to focus not only on the social platforms. While Facebook, for example, is obviously a very important actor, the digital marketing ecosystem is complex, as anyone who 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 disinformation and fake news are to be countered effectively.
3. We would add that advertisers increasingly look at their communications in terms of a ‘customer journey’, taking 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. It was for this reason that all these areas came into the remit of the ASA for non-political advertising several years ago.
Require all ‘objective factual claims’ used in political adverts to be substantiated.
If a campaign wants to make a seemingly objective and quantifiable claim in its political advertising, we believe the claim should be accurate and stand up to independent scrutiny.
We are not calling for an end to optimistic promises or scaremongering about what the other side might do: we are simply saying that if something is being presented as a fact the public have a right to be confident that it is just that.
We believe that political ad regulation can borrow heavily from the way consumer advertising is regulated. We advocate the introduction of rules for objective factual claims in political adverts to counter misinformation. There are examples of the problem this would solve at this Twitter thread https://twitter.com/clearpolitic5/status/1177867282032287744?s=20.
Yougov research commissioned by us and the fact-checking company Full Fact showed that 84% of the UK public support making it a legal requirement for factual claims in political adverts to be accurate. It also showed that most of the UK public are unaware that there are almost no rules for political adverts and this, we would argue, makes inaccurate factual claims all the more effective. The raw data can be accessed here:
Misleading claims currently comprise the majority of complaints to the ASA in respect of consumer advertising. We surmise that this would also be the case for political ads. Indeed the ASA received many complains from members of the public during the European referendum, but could take no action as they were outside its jurisdiction.
The majority of complaints to the ASA are now about digital advertising, and we believe this would also be the case for complaints to a political regulator. However, we think that, as with consumer advertising, that regulator’s jurisdiction should extend to all forms of political advertising.
We believe a political regulator should be given similar powers to those currently exercised over advertisers and media owners who breach the broadcast consumer advertising codes. The sanctions the ASA can currently impose are given here:
We would propose that the sanctions for actionable political advertising and content should include being referred to Ofcom. For broadcast consumer advertising the responsibility to withdraw, change or reschedule a commercial lies with the owner of the media. Broadcasters are required by a condition of their licences to enforce ASA rulings. If they persistently run ads which fall foul of the Broadcast Advertising Code, they risk being referred by the ASA to Ofcom, which can impose fines and even withdraw their licence to broadcast.
We also believe that, as a deterrent, advertisers should face a significant fine.
Funding the regulator
We believe a political advertising regulator could be funded in a manner similar to how the ASA is funded. The ASA’s revenues come from two fees: a 0.1% fee on ad space called the Asbof levy, and a 0.2% fee from broadcast advertising called the Basbof levy.
In 2018 the income from these two sources to enable the ASA to monitor all advertising was £9.2m. Source: the ASA 2018 annual report:
Although, as shown in the table below, spend data varies year by year, we believe that, modelling data from the Electoral Commission on purely political ad spend, a 5% levy could raise at least £650K. If this was expanded to include what is categorised as ‘unsolicited material to electors’, the same 5% levy could generate a total of over £1m.
We include these figures to demonstrate that it is entirely feasible to adopt a cost neutral approach to political ad regulation.
We have further workings, modelled on the current operational costs provided in the ASA’s annual reports, which illustrate that the lower amount (using a levy only on ad spend) should be more than sufficient to cover the administrative costs of political ad regulation. We would welcome the opportunity to work through our workings and assumptions more fully with the ASA and your team.
Total advertising spend
Unsolicited material to electors
Contribution to the regulator (ad spend)
Contribution to the regulator (ad spend & unsolicited material to electors)
Source: Highlighted political campaigning spend data from the Electoral Commission data.
In terms of process we believe that political advertising regulation can borrow heavily from the way consumer advertising is regulated.
- How the ASA and CAP system for consumer advertising works
This page from the ASA website will explain fully, to anyone unfamiliar with the system, how it works:
In summary, the ASA site states:
‘The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is the UK’s independent advertising regulator. The ASA makes sure ads across UK media stick to the advertising rules (the Advertising Codes).
The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) is the sister organisation of the ASA and is responsible for writing the Advertising Codes [which are the BCAP and CAP codes] for broadcast and non-broadcast respectively.
We’re passionate about what we do because responsible advertisements are good for
people, society and advertisers. Our mission is to make every UK ad a responsible ad.
We respond to concerns and complaints from consumers and businesses and take action to ban ads which are misleading, harmful, offensive or irresponsible. As well as responding to complaints we monitor ads to check they’re following the rules.’
- How Clearcast works
Clearcast is an advisory service for media owners to ensure advertising they carry complies with the advertising code.
Advertisers work with Clearcast to ‘clear’ their ads, i.e. to ensure that the ads they are developing comply with the codes.
With regard to our proposed process around factual claims it is worth noting in particular that:
- It is a fast service. Pre-production scripts are turned around within 3 working days and post-production films in less than 2 working days
- Compliance - Ads must reflect the spirit, not merely the letter of the Code;
- The ASA Investigation Process – For the media they cover, Clearcast provides a defence against complaint, e.g. by confirming it was submitted in the development of the campaign;
- Many problematic ads are picked up pre-production when scripts are
submitted along with their substantiation.
One of the ASA’s roles is to act as a regulatory backstop for handling complaints. Again. from the ASA website:
‘When ads are found that clearly break the rules we seek assurances from advertisers — and the clearance centres in the case of broadcast advertising — that those ads are withdrawn or amended.
When the ASA publishes an upheld ruling, it asks the advertiser for a written assurance that the claim or image which broke the advertising rules will be removed or amended.
On the rare occasions when an advertiser is unwilling or unable to follow the rules, the
team will consider applying sanctions.
UK broadcasters (licenced by Ofcom) are required to follow ASA rulings and the UK Code of Broadcast Advertising as part of their licence conditions.
For broadcast advertisements, the responsibility to withdraw, change or reschedule a commercial lies with the broadcasters.
Broadcasters [media owners] are required by a condition of their broadcast licences to enforce ASA rulings. If they persistently run ads that fall foul of the Broadcast Advertising Code, broadcasters risk being referred by the ASA to Ofcom, which can impose fines and even withdraw their licence to broadcast.
Although responsibility for sticking to the Code rests with the broadcaster, advertisers also suffer consequences if their broadcast ads break the rules.
They might, for example, face bad publicity generated by an upheld complaint. Advertisers might also waste hundreds of thousands of pounds making an advertisement in the first place, only to lose the revenue it might have generated if it is banned. Because broadcasters cannot show ads that break the rules, advertisers might lose prime advertising slots in which a banned ad had been booked to appear.’