Should outdoor media owners take political advertising? On the surface, it may seem like a no-brainer, but the recent furore over UKIP’s campaign highlights that doing so is not without its risks.
UKIP has vowed to create "an earthquake" in British politics at the European Parliament elections on 22 May. The party has upped the stakes with a controversial poster campaign that has attracted accusations of racism.
One poster in the campaign, created by the Edinburgh agency Family, states: "26 million people in Europe are looking for work. Whose jobs are they after?" A finger points menacingly out from the poster at the reader.
The posters have been defaced at sites in London’s Vauxhall and Liverpool, with pictures of the graffitied and spray-painted sites appearing on social media and in the press. Some are not surprised by this reaction.
"Any ad for UKIP was going to be controversial," Tim Bleakley, the chief executive of the outdoor media owner Ocean, says. "A risk you take in running advertising like that is people will take offence. Posters are a powerful medium. If people don’t like them, they will do something about it."
Bleakley says Ocean, which runs 30 prominent outdoor sites across the UK, refuses to run any political advertising. He says he worries that political advertising could detract from the messages of blue-chip clients, and that running material for one political party could lead to extremely controversial groups, such as the British National Party, demanding the same.
The Advertising Standards Authority has received 19 complaints about the UKIP posters, but neither the ad industry self-regulator nor The Electoral Commission can rule on political ads – it is one category of advertising where people have no recourse for complaint. The ASA advises people to contact the parties directly, while The Electoral Commission says if material is alleged to be inciting racial hatred, it should be reported to the police.
So it is down to media owners to make the call about what is acceptable political advertising. Many of the landlords of poster sites have stipulations – for example, local authorities and Transport for London do not allow any political advertising, while other private owners have their own rules.
Clear Channel, which runs the sites in Vauxhall and Liverpool where the UKIP posters were defaced, says it took the decision to run the campaign after careful evaluation. "They are a major political party, and we don’t see our role as being to censor," a spokesman says.
The company has also run posters for the BNP. "We consider every campaign on its merits. Our preference is not to censor. However, we would balance this against the specific creative and the potential impact on the communities we operate in," the spokesman adds.
There is little doubt about the strong role posters play in party political advertising: M&C Saatchi claimed its posters for the Conservatives in marginal seats at the 2010 general election were vital in helping the Tories become the biggest parliamentary party. Some believe funds will be diverted away from outdoor into digital marketing for the 2015 general election.
But one source says this will be the first election where parties will be able to use digital billboards, allowing them to tailor their messages to local communities. Another source adds that, while he disagrees with UKIP, it is good that the posters have alerted people to the party’s attitudes.
Some £7 million was spent on poster advertising during the 2010 general election, and this figure is only likely to increase ahead of next year’s party campaigning.