Thursday, July 16, 2009

Why aren't politicians covered by the Advertising Standards Authority?

I have reproduced a fabulous and now iconic advert that I remember as a child seeing in American comic magazines (trash mags, as they were called by teachers at my school)- adverts which we knew even as schoolboys were a pack of lies. (Some of the best of these - a real trip down memory lane - are reproduced here).

These days adverts like this are not seen because laws and rules have been introduced by most Western countries that outlaw misleading advertising. In Britain most of this process is overseen and managed by the Advertising Standards Authority (another one of those famous Quango's we are all talking about) although certain types of advertising activity such as online and in-store displays are covered by other regulations.

The Advertising industry realised that flagrant lies and misleading claims in some ads risked creating cynicism and thereby damaging the integrity (and worth) of all advertising and they self-regulated to prevent this.

According to the ASA site:

Self-regulation of non-broadcast advertising as we know it today began 40 years ago when the Advertising Association established what became the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP), the industry body that sets the rules for advertisers, agencies and media. As the foreword to the very first edition of the British Code of Advertising Practice explained: “The function of advertising is the advocacy of the merits of particular products or services … and this Code seeks to define practices considered undesirable by the organisations which have subscribed to it.”

That was in 1961. The following year, the industry established the Advertising Standards Authority under an independent Chairman, to adjudicate on complaints about advertising that appeared to breach the Code.

"When challenged, advertisers must prove their claims are true. If they cannot prove it, they cannot claim it."

Ever since then the advertising industry has been increasingly strictly controlled, and although strengthened with a number of consumer laws is still largely self-regulated. These days you can be pretty certain that if a definite claim is made for a product (or against a competitors product) in the UK, the facts are there to back the claim and a third party independent adjudicator has passed it for publication.

But not if that advert is made for, or published by, a political party.

From the start the ASA specifically excluded political advertising and political claims, mainly to avoid having to be drawn into political fighting.

The ASA today divert any enquiries about misleading advertising by politicians to the Electoral Commission. The EC's stated aim is to encourage " integrity and public confidence in the democratic process" and although they list a large number of things they promote and monitor on their website honesty in political promotional material is not among them.

So today the most outrageous claims, lies, laughable misinformation and misleading charts and pictures can all be found in the leaflets and posters put about by politicians of all colours. And because party A lies about party B in one leaflet, human nature dictates that party B then makes even more blatant lies about party A in their next publication.

So you see 'X cannot win here' bar charts that wildly exaggerate the relative states of parties, utterly misleading figures on the economy and daft claims about spending cuts/tax rises (delete as appropriate) which serve to simply turn voters off completely.

And before anyone gets too sanctimoniously irate, I specifically include my own party in this - we had some very unsubstantiated claims on posters at the last election which would not have got past the ASA had they been covered by the regulations.

Occasionally someone names names, and makes a claim about an individual candidate rather than his party, and the public are then treated to the unedifying sight of a libel action between two squabbling politicians making claim and counter claim.

This escalating arms race of misinformation is becoming very dangerous, especially at a time when the public are already seriously concerned about the trustworthiness of this Government in particular and all politicians in general.

In allowing false claims to pass unchecked we are creating the very kind of cynicism and disbelief that the advertising industry was wise enough to see the danger in 50 years ago.

The answer is simple. Either the laws and regulations concerning advertising products should include all advertising, including political ones, or new regulations should be introduced forcing the same burden of proof.

Politicians need to be more 'legal decent, honest and truthful' than any advertiser.


Big Brian said...

Politicians need to do a lot more than just clean up their advertising to restore confidence, but I agree with you, doing so would be a good start.

As a matter of interest who would police it? Would you prefer to see the existing ASA/OFCOM structure take over political advertising and leaflets or would you advise that the Electoral Commission have a widened remit to specifically police political claims?

I think you'd struggle to persuade either to get involved; when is a spending freeze a spending cut? - answer, depends who you ask.

David Trevelyn said...

When a politician can commit massisve expenses fraud (e.g. claiming for a already paid off mortgage) and call it "an honest mistake" is it any surprise their adveritisng is similarly "economical with the truth".

The era of USA style spin doctors has resulted in an inevitable dumbing down of both aspiration and rhetoric amongst Politicans, as they aim for the lowest commom denominator in political arguments - smearing.

It's a pity, put em back in top hats and tails and ask em to match the speechifying of the likes of Gladstone, Disraeli and even Churchill.