Political advertising complaints

As the clock counts down to the UK’s EU Referendum (voters will be asked to decide whether Britain should leave or remain in the European Union), we’re reminding everyone that political ads are not within our remit. The best course of action for anyone with concerns about a political ad is to contact the party responsible and exercise your democratic right to tell them what you think.

As the referendum fast approaches (23 June), we will see political ads containing policies, themes and issues that can be emotive and even divisive. The question naturally arises about why political ads are not part of the Advertising Codes and who is responsible for regulating them.

Political advertisements are banned from being broadcast on TV under the Communications Act 2003 (instead parties are given airtime via party political broadcasts which aren’t classed as advertising). Meanwhile, political ads in non-broadcast media (posters, newspapers etc) whose principal function is to influence voters in local, regional, national or international elections or referendums are exempt from the Advertising Code. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) can’t, therefore, look into complaints that political ads are misleading, harmful or offensive. A potted history reveals why.

Until 1999, non-broadcast political advertising was subject to some rules in the Advertising Code. However, following the 1997 General Election, the Committee of Advertising Practice (the body that writes the Advertising Code) made a decision to exclude political advertising from the ASA’s remit because of several factors that risked bringing advertising regulation in general into disrepute.

These factors included the short, fixed timeframes over which elections run (i.e. the likelihood that complaints subject to ASA investigation would be ruled upon after an election has taken place). Also, the absence of consensus between the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat Parties to bring political advertising wholly within the scope of the Code played its part in CAP taking the decision to exclude all of it.

In 1998, the ASA referred the matter to the Neill Committee on Standards in Public Life. The Neill Committee recommended that political parties should establish a code of best practice in partnership with the advertising industry.  The report was presented to Parliament in July 1999.

And in 2003, the Electoral Commission conducted a consultation on the regulation of electoral advertising.  They concluded that the ASA should not be responsible for regulating election advertising, but the Commission did not establish a separate Code – and this remains the case today.

For further information, read the Political Advertising section of the CAP Code (PDF).

Source: ASA website

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