Politics and advertising have always been controversial cohorts and
the tensions between the two came to a head last week when the ad
industry refused to continue policing political advertising.
Despite ample opportunity for discussion, the main political parties
still can’t agree on an appropriate format and agenda for regulating
party political advertising. As a result, the Committee of Advertising
Practice and the Advertising Standards Authority, which have been
policing the sector for more than a decade, have finally washed their
hands of the whole messy affair.
With advertising budgets reaching pounds 12.7 million for the Tories and
pounds 7.6 million for Labour in the run-up to the 1997 general
election, the importance of getting the issue sorted is clear, but still
nobody wants to take responsibility.
The Electoral Commission (the body that monitors political adspend) is
unwilling to take on the job, leaving the parties until January 2000 to
sort out some sort of compromise. If they fail again, party political
advertising for the next general election will be a free for all.
It seems that the parties have no intention of reaching a
’If someone won’t play, the game is off,’ Chris Powell, chairman at BMP
DDB, says. His agency created the Labour party’s advertising campaign
for the 1997 election.
Powell continues: ’The Tories have made it clear that they will not
abide by any form of regulation. While that, unfortunately for them,
makes it look at though they must be telling lots of lies, it also puts
a stop to any further discussion on the subject.’
Labour, on the other hand, has openly said that it is prepared to sign
up to the CAP/ASA code - in other words, to have its advertising treated
in exactly the same way as any commercial advertising.
’There is a certain amount of political opportunism here,’ Andrew Grice,
political editor of The Independent, says. ’Labour declared its position
knowing full well that the Tories were not going to agree to regulation.
You can’t take the politics out of politics.’
CAP’s chairman, Andrew Brown, is clearly not happy with the situation
but is loath to continue with the format whereby political advertising
is part-in and part-out of the regulations. Under the old system
political advertising had to be legal and decent but the parties have
never been required to substantiate any of their claims as honest or
’The status quo is no longer an option,’ Brown says. ’We don’t think it
is right for the ASA to get dragged into the hothouse of political
debate. Political advertising is basically an extension of the hustings
debate where people take it in turns to decry the opposition. Commercial
advertising is very different.’
You sense a certain amount of relief from the ASA which, from 1 January
2000, will no longer police the rules previously set by CAP.
’It is no secret that we never felt comfortable regulating party
political advertising - especially at the time of a general election,’
Caroline Crawford, the director of communications at the ASA, says. ’One
of the main problems is that many of the claims made through this form
of advertising are impossible to assess objectively. How can you assess
slogans like ’Labour isn’t working’?’
The ASA’s position is a difficult one. Before the last general election
Labour complained about the ’demon eyes’ campaign that was created by
the Tories’ agency, M&C Saatchi. The ad showed sinister pairs of eyes
staring out from Tony Blair’s face or peering from behind a red curtain,
and were dominated by the words ’new Labour, new danger’. The complaint
was only upheld by the ASA because the picture of Blair was used without
On the other hand, when BMP DDB created an ad using the line ’same old
Tories, same old lies’ it was exempt from regulation because Labour was
not required to substantiate the claim.
Steve Hilton was the Tories’ account manager at M&C Saatchi and worked
on the ’demon eyes’ campaign as well as the ’Labour’s tax bombshell’
posters of 1992. He thinks that the latest move by the CAP and ASA is a
perfectly sensible one.
’It was widely thought that regulators were interfering in the
democratic process,’ he says. ’While I think there is a role for making
sure that parties are not out-spent by the opposition, the content of
ads should not be monitored. Public opinion is a far better judge.’
Crawford also points to the practical problems that arise from the ASA’s
involvement. ’Because of the way we work it is not possible to make
overnight rulings. Hypothetically, what would happen if the ASA decided
after a general election that the winning party had lied in its
Brown doesn’t know how the situation can be resolved and, frankly,
doesn’t sound as though he cares. Crawford believes that on-going
political debate in the national press is of far more use to the
electorate than arguing about the regulation of ads.
Perhaps things won’t change much at all. Some commentators say that the
political parties have been able to get away with whatever they like
over the years anyway. Even when complaints have been upheld, the damage
has been done. And even if the ads were pulled, the subsequent press
coverage did the job well enough anyway.
’The likely outcome will be a messy compromise between the parties,
another code will be drawn up and the Government will appoint a
committee, staffed by the good and the great, to up-hold it,’ Grice
says. ’The problem won’t be solved and the same issues will arise.’