If a week is a long time in politics then the next few could, for some, feel like an eternity. Following the triggering of a snap general election which will take place on 8 June, we’re all bound to see and hear a lot of political ads in the coming weeks that make various pledges and promises to the electorate. That’s why it’s important the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) reminds everyone that the political ads you see during the course of this election are not covered by advertising rules and they can’t look into complaints about them.
In summary, 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 question naturally arises about why political ads around elections don’t have to follow the Advertising Code. A potted history reveals why.
Until 1999, non-broadcast political advertising was subject to some rules in the Advertising Code, for instance the rules relating to denigration and offence. However, following the 1997 General Election, Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) 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.
Perhaps inevitably, political ads will contain policies, themes and issues that can be emotive and even divisive. 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.
For further information, read Political Advertising section.
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