Will the advertising industry manage to pass the hot potato of
party political advertising back into the hands of the politicians?
(Campaign, last week). The industry’s mounting frustration with the
current regulatory regime for party campaigns is understandable. But
whether the politicians will agree to ’put their own house in order’ is
quite another matter.
At present, the parties are covered by advertising’s Code of Practice
but are exempt from five crucial clauses: the requirement to have
documentary evidence to prove their claims; not to rely on testimonials
without independent back-up; to ensure comparisons are ’clear and fair’;
to avoid misleading by inaccuracy, ambiguity, exaggeration or omission;
and unfair attacks on rival products.
This ’halfway house’ meant that, in the run-up to the last year’s
general election, M&C Saatchi’s ad showing Tony Blair with ’demon eyes’
fell foul of the code (because it portrayed him, without his permission,
in an offensive way). But complaints about BMP DDB’s ’same old Tories,
same old lies’ campaign were dismissed by the Advertising Standards
Authority because Labour was under no obligation to prove the Tories had
The Committee of Advertising Practice is now reviewing the code and
there is an emerging consensus among industry leaders that the ’part in,
part out’ rules for politics should be abolished. The parties should be
either fully in or fully out.
A review group chaired by John Hooper, director-general of the
Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, has come up with a clever
wheeze: as the Labour Government plans to set up an independent
electoral commission to supervise party funding and new limits on
campaign spending, shouldn’t this body also agree a new code on
political ads and take over the job of policing them from the ASA? The
proposal is being unveiled this Thursday to the committee on standards
in public life, chaired by Lord Neill (formerly the Nolan committee),
which is investigating party funding. ’There is no point in running a
system that does not work,’ says Andrew Brown, director-general of the
Advertising Association, who is giving evidence to Neill.
’The present position is bad for advertising, bad for the public and in
the long term probably bad for the parties too.’
Brown insists there is nothing wrong with the code itself. ’The problem
is the enforcement mechanisms being inappropriate or unacceptable to
political parties,’ he points out.
On the face of it, passing the potato to Neill makes sense because the
CAP’s attempts to reach agreement with the parties have failed. While
Labour is prepared to sign up fully to the existing code, the Tories
refused and also rejected the CAP’s alternative plan - a separate, new
Despite the CAP’s desire not to become embroiled in a dogfight, it may
be drawn in. A skirmish has already begun. Chris Powell, chief executive
of BMP DDB, Labour’s agency, says: ’I deplore the fact that the
Conservatives will not accept what seems a perfectly reasonable
suggestion - that claims should be well based and provable. Political
parties should be prepared to substantiate their claims.’
’Labour is just posturing,’ counters a Tory adman who worked on last
year’s election campaign. ’It knows perfectly well that signing up to
the code would be totally unworkable.’
Indeed the Tories have listed a series of problems in a sharply worded
response to the CAP review group. Rejecting Hooper’s claim that
political ads are bringing all advertising into disrepute, the Tories
insist voters are quite capable of distinguishing between party
propaganda and ads for a commercial product. The Tories say that
bringing politics fully under the existing code would require
pre-vetting - a point accepted by the CAP. This would be a logistical
nightmare in the heat of an election battle, according to Tory
officials, with ads that were allowed carrying a seal of approval
Inevitably, the ASA would be accused of taking sides.
A separate political code would, the Tories argue, probably kill off
traditional campaigns. ’Only the most anodyne, bland and neutral
advertising would be permissible, the Tories told Hooper.
The issues raised by the Tories are real and the ad industry will have
some serious thinking to do if the Neill committee does not take up its
proposal. What happens then? Hooper and other leading industry figures
favour totally exempting political ads from the code, but media owners
are worried that this would leave a dangerous vacuum: without any code,
how would they judge whether to accept an election ad?
Although the CAP and AA are talking tough, they may find it hard to wash
their hands of political advertising. With Labour and the Tories
unlikely to see eye to eye on the issue, the hot potato may lay in the
industry’s lap for some time yet.
Andrew Grice is political editor of the Sunday Times.