- Advertising industry chiefs have sparked a row with political parties by proposing that their general election ads are pre-vetted before they can be run.
Andrew Brown, director general of the Advertising Association, said the moves would stop the parties running ads that fall foul of the advertising industry's code of practice in order to generate publicity.
Brown said M&C Saatchi's ad for the Tories, depicting Tony Blair with "demon eyes", might have been a deliberate breach. "That could have been a reason behind that advertisement. I suspect the agency that produced it knew it was likely to contravene the code because it was depicting somebody in a denigratory way and it had not asked their permission."
He said: "You can manipulate the system by deliberately producing advertisements that flaunt the code. You get complaints, you get media coverage completely disproportionate to the level of spend."
Brown added: "In the three or four weeks before the election, pre-vetting seems to be the only way in which you can influence advertising content if parties are intent on breaking rules." He suggested this would cut the number of denigratory political ads, which could otherwise continue to grow.
Brown was giving evidence to the Neill committee on standards in public life last Thursday, when he outlined the industry's plans for political ads to be subject to a new code policed by a new electoral commission rather than the Advertising Standards Authority (Campaign 1 May).
In a submission to Neill's enquiry into party funding, the Committee of Advertising Practice admitted that compulsory pre-vetting by the CAP would be unacceptable to the parties.
But, the industry leaders' hope that the politicians would allow the proposed commission to clear their ads were quickly rebuffed this week.
A Labour source said: "It would be unworkable in the heat of an election campaign, even with the best will in the world."
A Tory official said: "In the cut and thrust of an election, ads are obviously produced at very short notice. This kind of bureaucracy would take all the spontaneity out of a campaign."
The Neill committee, which will give its verdict on the regulation of political advertising in August or September, also quizzed David Clayton-Smith, chairman of the CAP, and Grahame Fowler, head of strategic affairs at the ASA.