Today, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has upheld the UK’s right to ban all political advertising on television and radio. Of the few really unpopular views that I hold, none is perhaps quite as socially unacceptable as my belief that we should allow paid-for political broadcast advertising in the UK. I have met almost no one who doesn’t automatically recoil in horror at the idea, and who doesn’t then go on to radically reassess, downwards, their opinion of me.
Much of this reaction seems to relate to what we perceive as being the American experience of political advertising. Most news reports on the subject, and also most opinion polls I’ve seen on it, at some point use the phrase “US-style” to describe the system they’re discussing. This might be intended to be helpful in framing the debate, but it is also highly leading and potentially misleading. It immediately defines political advertising in this country in terms of something that most people already have strongly negative views on.
It’s worth bearing in mind that the US political system, and the American media and advertising markets, are so utterly different from ours that we should be wary of drawing too many conclusions from their experience. US elections are conducted on a massively different scale to those in the UK. This is not just a feature of geography – the US is 40 times the area of the UK with five times the population; a US Congressional district is, on average, ten times the size of a UK Parliamentary constituency – and these factors do much to drive up the cost of broadcast advertising in the US. There are fundamental systemic differences, too. The US system is federal so, on any given election day, the number of offices up for election is likely to be considerably higher than a British voter would ever face, and only one of those election campaigns is run on a nationally centralised basis. The US system has primaries, which both prolong the election campaigning period and also lead to a substantially weaker party system than we have in the UK (both reasons, by the way, for my belief that we would be insane to introduce primaries in this country). Whereas a British Parliamentary candidate can largely rely on their party’s national head office to manage (and pay for) the bulk of all the advertising that reaches voters, American candidates for public office must run and finance their own individual campaigns, with varying levels of support from party HQ. In short, the American system necessitates many more people running ads for many more campaigns in many more elections appealing to many more voters over a much bigger area, much more frequently and over a much longer period of time than the British system would require.
That said, the two aspects of the American system that I think most people are concerned about probably would apply in the UK: the campaign with the most money would have an advantage; and there would be a lot of vile attack ads. To both points my response would be the same: they are already true of our election system today. Political advertising is permitted on posters (and other outdoor media), in the press, via direct mail and online. TV activity is limited to party political and election broadcasts, but these are expensive to produce. It is already the case that running an effective national election campaign requires considerable financial fire power that really only the two biggest political parties can muster. It is already the case that we have negative advertising in politics.
You could – and, I think, would want to – impose some fairly stringent regulation on campaign spending (and donating) which could mitigate some of the financial concerns. You would certainly want to regulate the broadcasters’ trading systems to ensure fair access to all political parties, on identical terms (to prevent any broadcaster from offering loads of really cheap airtime to their favoured party or candidate, while shutting out others). You might well want to restrict who can buy airtime, to avoid the situation where a single billionaire decides to buy loads of ads supporting his or her chosen party, thereby circumventing the restrictions on that party’s campaign spending. I don’t pretend that allowing broadcast political advertising is unproblematic, but I think that there are solutions to most problems and we could avoid the worst of the US experience if we wanted to. As I’ll explain in a minute, allowing broadcast advertising could actually work to the advantage of smaller, less well resourced campaigns.
On the issue of negative advertising I would say that that is about the message, not the medium. Remember Tony Blair’s ‘evil eyes’ or Michael Howard portrayed as a flying pig? Nothing prevents negative advertising at the moment, whether in non-broadcast media or in party political and election broadcasts. I think nothing should. You’ll never be able to regulate impartially the content of political advertising, and it will inevitably get too close to censorship of political speech to try. Does that mean allowing extremists like the BNP to advertise on TV? Probably, yes. I don’t like that any more than you do, but if we’re not going to ban a party from existing and putting up candidates for elected office, it seems illogical and illiberal to ban it from communicating.
Nothing I’ve said so far is actually an argument for changing the system in this country to allow broadcast political advertising. So, with absolutely no expectation that I might seriously change your mind, here’s why I think broadcast political advertising would be better for our democracy than the current system.
It would better engage voters. For all our attention on terrible advertising in America, we forget that some political advertising is very good (the majority is neither). Here’s a favourite example from recent years, from Hillary Clinton’s 2008 Presidential campaign:
The style and delivery may not be to your liking, but my point is that in just 30 seconds, without ever mentioning either her name or Barack Obama’s, the ad communicated perfectly what Hillary thought was the most important difference between herself and her opponent.
Good advertising works. Companies spend money on advertising because, when it works, more people buy more of their products. It changes how people feel about brands, products and services, and makes more people interact more with those things, primarily by buying more of them. (I make no judgement here about whether or not this is a good thing, or the extent to which our collective gullibility to marketing is incredibly depressing – I’m just observing.) I would argue that any democracy functions better with more engagement and less apathy. Advertising could help.
It might be a stretch to say that advertising would suddenly make lots of people politically energised, and magically drive up election turnout. You might correctly point out that turnout in US Presidential elections with lots of advertising are generally in the 50-60% range, whereas in the UK they are in the 60-70% range (and were in the 70-80% range not very long ago). You might also remind me that, for all the brilliance of her TV ad, Hillary Clinton did, in fact, lose the campaign to be her party’s presidential nominee. Fair enough. But nothing, surely, could be worse for political engagement than what we currently have.
Party political and election broadcasts (PPBs and PEBs) are dire. They are unwatchable drivel and, as a result, I suspect no one watches them (I haven’t been able to find data on this – if you have it and can prove me wrong, let me know). My hunch is that, for most people, the words ‘party political broadcast’ are a cue to turn off. That’s if you happen to see them at all. Each one is shown only once (maybe twice, but still only on a single day). They are scheduled at times when TV channels expect to lose viewers anyway (late at night, for example) and shown only by the five ‘public service broadcasting’ (PSB) channels (BBC1, BBC2, ITV1, Channel 4 and five) which have a slowly declining audience share. If you do decide to watch one, you are subjected to an often poorly made short TV programme that you may feel is of no relevance to you. This is because, with so few opportunities to get their message across on TV, and with only general purpose national channels to broadcast on, political parties are forced into making PPBs with very broad appeal. They can’t easily target a message geographically or demographically.
Now imagine you’re watching your favourite TV show on, say, E4. During a mid-programme ad break, a political ad comes on. If you haven’t popped out to the loo or to put the kettle on, chances are you’ll sit and watch the ad, just as you sit through all the ads when you watch (non-recorded or time-shifted) TV. It may be a terrible ad – like many of the non-political ads you also watch – but it’s only 30 seconds long and your show will start again in a minute. It might be quite a good ad – pithier and punchier than a party political broadcast. You might think that it’s so good, you wish your friends could see it, but you know they don’t watch this show. No matter – it’s been booked as part of a campaign designed to garner a certain number of impacts so, over the course of the next few days, across a range of channels, a known, measurable number of people will see the ad. One of the reasons you like the ad is because you’re a twenty-something, watching a show watched by lots of other twenty-somethings, and this ad talks about issues relevant to twenty-somethings. (Different ads, on other channels and around other shows, target people of different age groups, or ethnic backgrounds, or with specific policy interests). You like it even better because it’s only showing in your region, so it talks about your region.
OK, so it’s clearly far-fetched to expect all of this from political advertising, but my point is that the move away from untargeted broadcasts that few people see and fewer still actually watch, to targeted ads that more people see and a higher proportion actually watch, ought to be a good thing in terms of overall political engagement.
Advertising also works better for political parties and particularly those with smaller budgets. This last bit is clearly counter-intuitive – how can moving from a system of free airtime to one of paid airtime be better for organisations with very little money? Answer: by letting them spend that money more effectively.
Imagine you’re the Green Party. You have a very limited budget for broadcast marketing – tens of thousands of pounds at best (I’m guessing – it could be much more or much less than that, I have no idea; bear with me anyway). As a minor party, you’re getting limited media attention. You’re not going to get into any of the televised debates. Everything that the three major parties are guaranteed to get – appearances on Question Time, coverage of press conferences – you are guaranteed to get less of, or none at all. Your only guaranteed broadcast airtime will come through your party election broadcasts, and you’ll get fewer of them than the three main parties, and they’ll be shorter as well. However, because they are your only chance to be seen or heard on air, you have no choice but to take advantage of them. TV production is expensive – high quality TV production even more so – so pretty much your entire broadcast marketing budget will go into a single five-minute PEB that will air once at 11.05pm on BBC2 and almost no one will pay any attention to.
Now imagine you’re allowed to advertise. Although you have to pay for your airtime, you’re not forced into a one-size-fits-all solution that simply reinforces the advantage of the three major parties. Yes, you have to cut your cloth accordingly but you weren’t actually able to do that before. You can forget TV and you can forget national coverage – too expensive. But you have some target seats – Brighton, Norwich, Cambridge, maybe Edinburgh, maybe Lewisham. To win them, you particularly need young people to turn out to vote, and you need them to choose you over Labour. You can cheaply make some radio ads – about issues that you know younger votes will particularly respond to – and still have plenty of money left to buy airtime on local radio. Sure, Heart FM is full of ads for the big three parties, but you can reach out effectively using the smaller stations and particularly those – like Juice FM in Brighton – that have a particular demographic focus. You can plan a campaign that you know will be heard by a certain number of people, and you have control over when your ad is scheduled.
You still can’t come anywhere close to matching the impact of the main parties’ advertising – but all parties, including yours, could spend their money more effectively than they can at the moment just by being given the freedom to choose their own medium and channel.
The current system does little more than entrench the status quo. We may all be horrified at the idea of elections being decided on the basis of who has the deepest pockets but I’m not sure if that is necessarily much worse than elections being decided on the basis of who has won elections before. Small parties are marginalised in the current system; new parties shut out altogether. I would question the health of a democracy that is incapable of allowing new voices to be heard.
In any case, while having a big ad budget is clearly advantageous in an election campaign, it’s less clear that it is necessarily decisive. The Natural Law Party could saturate the airwaves with commercials and I still don’t think many of us would be persuaded that yogic flying was a particularly coherent basis for a system of government.
Everyone whose opinion counts in media and politics is against broadcast political advertising, despite all the benefits it could bring to both media and politics. Voters are pretty firmly against it too. Even this neo-liberal government that wants to deregulate and commercialise just about everything else within its grasp doesn’t want broadcast political advertising. It’s just me. I wish we could be more willing to give it a go. I think democracy could actually be healthier for it.