21 July 2014
As the 2015 General Election approaches, we’re reminding everyone why we can’t look into complaints about political ads - they’re not subject to the Advertising Code. 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.
Often political ads, and the parties, issues and policies they promote, can be emotive. As political ads fall outside our remit, this naturally raises questions about how to complain about the ads we think are problematic 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. We 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), and the 1998 Human Rights Act, which raised concerns about the legality of the ASA restraining the freedom of political speech around democratic elections and referendum. Finally, 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.
In the main then, the exemption of political ads from the Code (from any source, not just established political parties, is down to freedom of speech considerations; namely that it is inappropriate for a body like the ASA to intervene in the democratic process.
Read the Advertising Code section on Political Advertising.