In a recent article on The Guardian it was argued that political advertising is not subject to the same scrutiny as commercial advertising because political parties are unwilling to work together in a system of self-regulation.

The article claimed that the recent controversies about claims made during the EU Referendum would not have happened if it was a commercial company:

“Had these been ads for products or services by commercial companies, we at the Advertising Standards Authority would have performed our usual role of holding to account the groups that ran them – checking the ads complied with the rules in the UK advertising codes, confirming they were legal, decent, honest and truthful.”

It is worth unpacking this claim because I’m not sure it is “legal, decent, honest, and truthful”.

First, the ASA would only have looked into the ads if there was a complaint about them after they had been broadcast and recorded. So this claim is a bit misleading. The ASA wouldn’t necessarily check the ads at all.

Second, even if they were checked, the CAP Codes (the ad rulebook in the UK) explicitly allow them.  The current CAP Codes allow companies to knowingly present false or misleading information as long as “the average consumer” is unlikely to take the claim literally (Code 3.1 and 3.2). In this case, I would think that clear evidence could be presented to suggest that the “average consumer” would not believe the claim and therefore it is in keeping with the CAP Codes. So this claim is also misleading on this front

Third, any judgement would be assessed by the ASA Council – have a look here to see how representative they are. Indeed, look who the chairman is – Rt Hon Lord Smith of Finsbury. A politician.

Another way of reading the situation is that politicians support the UK’s system of self-regulation because they don’t have to think about too it much. If it applied to them, they might have to ask some questions about the ASA that the ASA wouldn’t like to answer.