What are the political parties’ pledges about advertising at this election?

Jul 1st '24

With just four days to go until the General Election, the sense of eager anticipation is almost palpable. The debates, the hustings, the water borne stunts – it’s all been so very exciting. Or not, as the case may be. But just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, the Americans kindly hosted the debate between 81 year old Joe Biden and convicted felon Donald Trump. And even our old friends, the French, have pitched in to make us grateful for small mercies, with 33% of their votes going to Marine Le Pen’s National Rally Party. At the leader’s debate in Nottingham last week a man in the audience asked Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer “Are you two really the best we’ve got?”  Honestly, whatever your political leanings, it could be a lot worse. Look at the USA. Look at France. Or look back to our last general election in 2019, when we were presented with the choice of Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn.  Against that context, it feels like we’re spoilt for choice.


So what, if anything, are the political parties saying about their plans for advertising regulation? Before I get into the weeds, a small confession is needed. I have not read through the manifestos of all the parties from cover-to-cover – but then again, who has? My research has consisted of downloading the .pdf versions of the manifestos, laughing hysterically at some of the pictures, and then conducting a word search. I should also add that the views in this post are mine, and mine alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of my partners or colleagues (some of whom have some very peculiar views indeed).


Some of the parties appear to have literally nothing to say about advertising and marketing – which might be an excellent reason to vote for them. One of these is Plaid Cymru, but unfortunately, they don’t appear to have any candidates standing outside Wales, so that option is not open to many of us. Shame.


If you want to vote for increased restrictions on gambling advertising, then if you live in Scotland, you’re in luck. The Scottish National Party are promising to “Treat problem gambling as a public health matter and take action to tackle the impacts of advertising. We believe a Gambling Levy is long overdue and the UK Government must act urgently to bring forward a levy without further delay.” It was the last Labour government that liberalised gambling regulation with the Gambling Act 2005, but it is a fair bet that the SNP won’t be the only party calling for greater regulation after the election. And we know how much our politicians like a flutter.


The Green Party does not saying anything about advertising directly, which is surprising, as one might expect them to want to add greenwashing to the list of 31 banned practices under the Consumer Protection Regulations when they are re-enacted in the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill later this year. However, the Greens do address greenwashing in the very specific context of biofuels, stating “Elected Greens will seek to properly regulate biofuels to end greenwashing and ensure they provide genuine net carbon savings. Only biofuels sustainably sourced within the UK will be permitted. We would end the practice of importing wood for burning at the Drax power station and end subsidies for biomass.” Of course, that promise is caveated by the reference to ‘elected greens’, which is helpful, as we wouldn’t want unelected greens passing laws.


You may not be entirely surprised to learn that the manifesto of Reform UK, or to give it its correct name, ‘Our Contract With You’, contains the words ‘immigrant’ on two occasions and the word ‘immigration’ 19 times. And none of these references could be described as a positive endorsement for the contribution of immigration to the cultural diversity or economic success of the country. You might be tempted to vote for Reform UK by virtue of the fact that their manifesto, sorry, their Contract (with a capital ‘C’) contains literally no policy pledges about advertising regulation. However, if you do find yourself tempted to put your cross in the Reform UK box on polling day, just think of this image from their Contract, and then you should find the courage to put your cross in a different box. Any other box will do.



So what about the big three? What do they have to say about advertising regulation?


The Labour party manifesto contains this pledge, “We face a childhood obesity crisis. So, Labour is committed to banning advertising junk food to children along with the sale of high-caffeine energy drinks to under-16s.” Of course, HFSS advertising to children has been the subject of bans and restrictions for decades, so if we do face a childhood obesity crisis, which seems beyond doubt, then it may be that its causes are more varied and complex than just advertising. It also seems unlikely ever tighter bans are likely to move the needle on the weight scales of the nation’s youth.


The second part of Labour’s pledge, about the sale of high-caffeine energy drinks to under-16s is an interesting one – although it is about the sale of these drinks, rather than their advertising. However, in 2022, the Advertising Standards Authority made a submission to the Welsh government on this very subject, which you can read here. The gist of the ASA’s submission is that while they do not regulate the sale of any product, any ban on sales would be likely to result in restrictions on the way these products can be advertised. This would probably be a combination of restrictions on both the content and scheduling of ads for high-caffeine energy drinks to ensure that they do not target the under-16s, following the pattern of restrictions on alcohol advertising.


What about the Tories, or the Conservative and Unionist Party to give them their full name (which literally nobody ever uses)? If you make it through the first 40 pages of their 80 page magnum opus, you will alight upon the chapter headed “Our plan to deliver better health and social care.” And its good to know that notwithstanding the evidence of the last 14 years, they do have a plan.  Their plan is to “bring forward our landmark Tobacco and Vapes Bill in our first King’s Speech. We will continue to tackle childhood and adult obesity and will legislate to restrict the advertising of products high in fat, salt and sugar. We will gather new evidence on the impact of ultra-processed food to support people to make healthier choices.” So more on HFSS advertising restrictions, and perhaps more restrictions or disclosure requirements for other forms of ultra-processed foods. The Tobacco and Vapes Bill was the interesting proposal to ban the sale of cigarettes to anyone born after 1st January 2009 and to make vapes less appealing to children by regulating the display, contents, flavours and packaging of vapes and nicotine products. When the bill was debated by the House of Commons in April, 383 MPs voted in favour and only 67 voted against; a majority of 316. The bill was supported by the Labour party. In fact, this element of the Tory manifesto is probably more likely to become law if Labour win the election than the Tories! Assuming that the Tories lose the election and a new party leader is elected, the question of whether the bill will pass unopposed turns on the identity of the new leader. In the April debate, 59 Conservative MPs voted against, including leadership contender Kemi Badenoch. Of the other leadership contenders, Penny Mordant abstained and Jeremy Hunt was (genuinely) unavoidably absent. Former leader Liz Truss captured the mood of this section of the parliamentary party when she said “A Conservative government should not be seeking to extend the nanny state. It only gives succour to those who wish to curtail freedom.” It’s almost enough to make one nostalgic for the days when Liz was PM. All 44 of them.


Last but not least, what of the Liberal Democrats? They have three proposals that touch on advertising. The first is “Protecting children from exposure to junk food by supporting local authorities to restrict outdoor advertising and restricting TV advertising to post-watershed.” It seems clear that one way or another, there is likely to be more control over HFSS advertising, regardless of who wins the election. This means there is no point in using that issue as the basis for deciding how to vote.  The second is to “Combat the harms caused by problem gambling by…restricting gambling advertising.” This is a policy objective that the Lib Dems share with the Scots Nats, but somehow, it feels like one that could gain traction under a Labour government which is more inclined to be interventionist than the Tories on most issues (except smoking among the young). Third, and finally, the Lib Dems are promoting “Working towards radical real-time transparency for political advertising, donations and spending, including an easily searchable public database of all online political adverts.” Although that is interesting, some transparency was introduced by the Elections Act 2022, which came into force last November, and which according to the Electoral Commission, meant that “most digital campaign material will require an imprint, showing who paid for and produced it. This will help voters know who is behind ads they see online and who is paying to influence their vote.”


Meanwhile, the campaigning group Reform Political Advertising continues to argue that “electoral advertising should be regulated so that fact-based claims are accurate.” I agree with them 100%, but it is not an issue that has found its way into the manifesto of any of the main political parties. And judging by the leaders debates in both the UK and the US, is not an idea that is likely to find favour with our political leaders, who seem disinclined to allow facts to get in the way of a good slogan.


However, please don’t let this cynicism put you off voting this Thursday!


Reposted: Lewis Silkin – AdLaw.


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