Time for political advertising to be legal, decent and honest
A view from Ian Millner

Time for political advertising to be legal, decent and honest

We must legislate so that there can be nothing to gain from telling lies to the public.

In my lifetime, I have never known such a time of division, anger and emotion. We are without doubt in a time of political crisis and great economic uncertainty.

But it is the cultural division and derision that will determine the cadence of any national recovery or coming back together again. 

If the primary role of a leader is to create followers, our leaders are currently hell-bent on a zero-sum game of divisive vitriol and rhetoric. Almost daily, something appears from one side or another of the political debate, seeking to further stoke the fires and fears of an already explosive debate.

At this stage, no-one is doing it to win the debate; everyone is doing it to win the power.

As we have seen in the US, this can be a successful strategy. But the problem in a fragile and culturally disunited UK is that the fault lines of history are too visible and painful.

Political strategists are hoping that "fury" will maximise voter turnout and that this will give their side of the argument the best chance of winning power.

The problem with this is that this is only a short-term opportunity, because once someone gets into power they will have to totally pivot to then concentrate on cultural sensitivity, positivity and inclusion. By this time, it will be too late – and the democratic process of disintegration will have already begun.

So what should our industry be doing to at this time of great peril?

We are self-regulated and any communication we put out that is either illegal, dishonest, disingenuous or immoral is withdrawn. But, also, the care and diligence that go into preparing our work for clients is both careful and thorough.

There is no way that political advertising should be able to operate above the law and we now need to legislate so that we can change the risks and the rewards, so that there can be nothing to gain from telling lies to the public, so that the personal cost of running such communication makes people take much more care about what they are saying.

Currently, it’s open season. Any political group seems to be able to get away with anything. It might win an election or a referendum, but if politicians really are bothered about the country they serve and the democracy they rely on, they have to make sure that the tools they are spending donors' money on is as legal, decent and honest as any other advertising.

We all know that emotion tends to be at the heart of the biggest impact. The problem is that politics knows this too and is prepared to use it without professional care and cultural attention. The problem with emotion is that it is also difficult to define, describe and control – and require the "judgment" of someone.

The other big debate within political advertising is linked to media owners. Often, communications or announcements happen via press conference, photo opportunity, tweet or similar; then they are out in the public domain. The speed of these messages is often driven by the news cycle and the thought that goes into the creation of these messages led by political strategists.

Keeping an eye on what gets out into the public domain would require a very different control organisation to that used by commercial advertising and require much more support and transparency from the media landscape in all of its forms (social, broadcast, PR, etc). Again, there are massive challenges here, given the vested interests of large parts of the media.

But here’s the thing. While many in our public lives proport to value and respect our democracy or, in their own way, the will of the people, no-one is clear what anyone means by this any more.

Trust in politicians, trust in politics, trust in democracy, trust in media… oh, what a tangled web we weave. We are entering dangerous times and, just as you think it couldn’t get any worse, it does. 

Wouldn’t it be good if advertising could help everyone break out of this cycle and be a full and genuine part of the solution, rather than continuously stoking a race to the bottom?

Ian Millner is global chief executive of Iris