It's time political advertising was held to account
A view from Jeremy Lee

It's time political advertising was held to account

The terrible death of the Labour MP Jo Cox was perhaps the final scene in a referendum campaign that plumbed depths never seen before in political advertising.

From the constitutional outrage of the taxpayer-funded ‘In’ leaflet sent to every UK household, to UKIP’s abhorrent "Breaking Point" poster, which seems to have taken its cues from 1930s Nazi propaganda, to the celebrity-fronted "Don’t fuck with my future" films (the use of an expletive always seems to demonstrate the lack of any real idea), neither side of the debate has really covered itself in much glory.

Fear-mongering foundations

The arguments to remain part of the European Union or to leave have been aggressive, poisonous and based largely on fear-mongering, rather than facts. Whether they contributed to the brutal murder of an elected Member of Parliament, which in itself is an affront to democracy, as well as a human tragedy, it’s too early to speculate. But, sadly, the awful scenes in Birstall, West Yorkshire, seem to sum up a country that has been tearing itself apart, spurred on by negative campaigning.

While this campaigning was temporarily suspended following Cox’s death, and ahead of the vote on Thursday, there’s a strong argument that it should be stopped for good, given that someone has paid the ultimate price.

Deeply rooted

Political advertising has traditionally held a proud place in the annals of British advertising. Everyone is familiar with the Conservatives’ seminal "Labour isn’t working" poster or Labour’s later images of Margaret Thatcher’s bouffant hair atop William Hague’s head. It even goes back further still to William Hogarth’s satirical series of oil paintings, "The Humours of an Election", created in 1755.

Labour Poster 2001 "be Afraid Be Very Afraid"

But more recently, spite and the spreading of fear and bile have replaced any cleverness or artistic flourish. Moreover, those old, national poster-holdings on which political parties used to rely to spread their messages have been supplanted by the appearance of a low-rent politician unveiling a ludicrous and unsubstantiated claim on an Ad Van, in front of assembled members of the press. There’s very little thought or strategy involved in trying to get implausible or hateful propaganda trending on social media, compared with really convincing the public of the strength of your case.

Political advertising has, of course, been exempt from the Advertising Standard Authority’s Advertising Code since the 1997 general election. Various factors, including the Human Rights Act, the short timeframes in which elections are held and a lack of consensus among the political parties, meant that there were concerns over the ASA restricting freedom of speech.

The Electoral Commission has kicked the regulation of political ads into the long grass. Perhaps the horrific assassination of an MP might make it rethink whether this is the best policy.

First act

Elsewhere, London’s new mayor Sadiq Khan (who was himself elected following a backlash against negative campaigning) announced that one of his first acts was to start banning ads that he thought promoted unhealthy or unrealistic body images.

The practicalities of how this will work are not entirely clear, but it seems to be a headline-grabbing move (albeit a well-meaning one) that plays to the crowd, rather than a well-thought-out policy.

Any, apparently arbitrary, decision by a politician to ban ads that are otherwise honest, legal and decent (the initiative seems inspired by Protein World’s controversial "Beach body ready" poster) could in itself set a dangerous precedent, when political advertising already lies in the gutter.