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Could a new political advertising code gain traction?

Could a new political advertising code gain traction?

Last year, The Media Leader wrote an article about fake political advertising newspapers and why there is seemingly nothing to be done to stop them.

With a record 4.5bn people set to go to the polls, 2024 will be the biggest year for elections in history. Developments in generative AI are leading to worries of misinformation and disinformation in election campaigns.

To this end, Alex Tait, co-founder of Reform Political Advertising, a group campaigning for regulation of fact-based claims in electoral ads, has published a draft political advertising code.

Muddy waters

Rae Burdon, a director at Reform Political Advertising, told The Media Leader: “It’s the busiest year of elections worldwide for a very long time. But in the UK, in particular, it will be an especially dirty election and some of the muddiest waters will be in communications.

“That’s for two reasons: one, because there’s nothing to stop politicians lying in advertising and they do that, I’m afraid, from all political parties an awful lot of the time; and two, because of the impact of AI.”

These factors will have a resounding impact on trust in both media and advertising, so adopting a code to regulate political advertising is “extremely important” for consumers and advertisers, Burdon argued.

“The worst part of disinformation, in our view, is political advertising, because there’s no filter between consumer and message,” Burdon explained. “And that’s why electoral advertising or political advertising is, if you like, the most dangerous form of disinformation — because who’s checking it? Nobody.”

What’s next

The Green Party has already signed up to Reform Political Advertising’s code and the group is approaching other parties.

Burdon suggested that if Labour adopted the code in its manifesto, it could lead to action from the Conservative government. If Labour advertising could state it was subject to a code of practice, but not Conservative advertising, “consumers can make up their own minds”.

In order for the code to be adopted, legislation could be passed to require political parties to observe such regulation, but what would be “better”, Burdon said, is political parties agreeing to be regulated.

Tait told The Media Leader the code contains provisions for fake newspapers often used for campaigning by political parties.

Burdon regarded the borrowing of local newspaper formats and burying the identities within that as “highly misleading”.

However, Reform Political Advertising did not want to “pretend” to be a regulator of formats, but a regulator of content — the code aims to be “format-neutral”.

Key pledges from the code

The first part of the code states that electoral advertising would:

  • Make every reasonable effort not to mislead voters;
  • Ensure that factual claims are accurate according to recognised sources;
  • Hold relevant and reliable evidence for factual claims, which will either be sourced in the advertising or made available if requested;
  • Acknowledge it if we make a mistake and issue a public correction as quickly as possible;
  • Inform audiences when we use generative AI.


Regulation and cooperation

In 2020, Reform Political Advertising gave evidence to the cross-party House of Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee, which made political advertising regulation one of its key recommendations.

Its report stated: “The relevant experts in the ASA, the Electoral Commission, Ofcom and the UK Statistics Authority should cooperate through a regulatory committee on political advertising.

“Political parties should work with these regulators to develop a code of practice for political advertising, along with appropriate sanctions, that restricts fundamentally inaccurate advertising during a parliamentary or mayoral election or referendum. This regulatory committee should adjudicate breaches of this code.”

Hamish Pringle, Ex-Advertising Standards Council, Ex-Director General of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, Ex-Advertising Association , Retired, on 21 Jan 2024
“Eminently sensible. If Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Ford, General Motors, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Boots and L’Oreal (amongst many other major corporations) can operate highly competitively under the ASA and Ofcom, why can’t political parties?”

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