House of Commons Library

Political advertising

Published Tuesday, October 8, 2019

This House of Commons briefing paper provides an overview of the functions and remit of the ASA and the current advertising regulatory system. It then considers in detail the rationale for the exemption for political advertising.

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In the UK, general advertising, sales promotions and direct marketing across all media, including marketing on websites, is regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). It does this by enforcing its Advertising Codes; there are separate codes for non-broadcast advertisements (known as the CAP Code) and broadcast advertisements (known as the BCAP Code). All adverts are expected to be legal, decent, honest and truthful.

However, political communications or advertising is treated differently. The Communications Act 2003 prohibits “political advertisements” from being broadcast on television or radio; instead parties are given airtime via party political broadcasts which are not classified as advertising. This legislation is enforced by Ofcom.

The ASA’s remit does not extend to non-broadcast advertisements (posters, newspapers etc.) whose principal purpose is to influence voters in a local, regional, national or international elections or referendums. Such ads are exempt from the CAP Code. Instead, complaints about political advertising should be made directly to the party responsible for that advertising.

This was not always the case. Until October 1999, non-broadcast political advertising was subject to the CAP Code. However, following the 1997 General Election, there were concerns that the impartiality of the advertising self-regulatory system could be damaged by rulings for or against political parties, and the likelihood that complaints subject to ASA investigation would be ruled upon after an election had taken place. The Human Rights Act 1998 also raised concerns about the legality of the ASA restraining the freedom of political speech around democratic elections and referendums.

Both the “Neill Committee on Standards in Public Life” and the Electoral Commission have considered the issue of political advertising, their reports were published in 1998 and 2004 respectively. More recently, the Electoral Commission has considered digital political campaigning and published its report on 1 June 2018.

This House of Commons briefing paper provides an overview of the functions and remit of the ASA and the current advertising regulatory system. It then considers in detail the rationale for this exemption for political advertising.  

Commons Briefing papers CBP-8673

Author: Lorraine Conway

Topics: Consumers, Elections

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