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Fri, 14 June 2024

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Considering the public’s trust in political advertising

Lisa Hayley-Jones, Policy and Government Affairs Director

Lisa Hayley-Jones, Policy and Government Affairs Director | Advertising Association

5 min read Partner content

From Taiwan to the United States, over 40 countries are set to hold elections this year, with Bloomberg Economics predicting a record voter turnout of 3.2 billion voters. The advertising industry is no stranger to understanding the importance of responsible and trusted communications. What can political advertising learn from brand advertising when it comes to building trust with the public?

The Advertising Association has been tracking public trust in advertising for decades. Our research has helped explain the positive and negative drivers of public trust in our industry’s work – from the importance of the creative quality of advertising to avoiding bombarding the public with messages repeatedly.

Political advertising is not regulated in the same manner as brand advertising. All commercial advertising, in all paid media channels, is regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and has to be ‘Legal, decent, honest and truthful’.

However, in this election year, we believe it is vitally important the public’s trust of all advertising, commercial and political, is considered and respected by any who use the tools of the advertising industry to communicate their political messages.

The following are some ways our research tells us that political advertising could harness advertising in a positive way by promoting informed and responsible voting during elections and avoiding the pitfalls that drive distrust.

Positively supporting the democratic process

The fact that so many people are voting in 2024 is a sign that people around the world are increasingly invested in democratic processes. Advertising can help build this interest by inspiring people to participate and place their vote. In particular, campaigns can be developed to constructively reach young voters, address their concerns and build political interest through dynamic and engaging creative messaging.

Harness advertising to promote political literacy

The advertising industry has developed its own non-profit education programme, Media Smart, to help young people navigate the media they consume with more confidence. Equivalent programmes to promote political literacy will be vital this year. 

Advertising can be a useful tool to help explain the voting process and registration deadlines. Adverts can also support the goal of making the voting process more inclusive through targeted campaigns designed for harder-to-reach communities.

Creative quality of advertising is everything

Our research shows the ads that people respond to in the most positive way are those of the highest creative quality. By this we mean, advertising that connects with people emotionally, telling a story that is relevant and compelling. This is probably best reflected, as an example, through the recent Christmas advertising season, where big advertisers worked with creative agencies and media owners to celebrate the festive period and ensure their brand was front-of-mind with their customers versus competitors.

The same can be true of the best political ads; they are the ones of the highest quality which genuinely connect with people by telling a story that resonates with their lives and experiences in an engaging way.

Ad bombardment can alienate people

Our research tells us that the most significant negative factor for the public is bombardment, with repetitive and intrusive messaging. Given the increase in media channels open to advertisers, including online which has increased the available inventory to all advertisers, there is a risk of simply over-advertising and, by doing, so, switching people off.

It’s important to note, there has been a marked increase of online political advertising since 2011 when 0.3% of budgets were spent on digital advertising, steadily increasing to 42.8% in 2017, according to the Electoral Commission.

Fast forward to 2024, our own AA/WARC expenditure data shows that £4 in every £5 spent on commercial advertising is destined online, a trend likely to be reflected in the political sphere.

Misleading advertising fuels distrust

Another significant driver of distrust in advertising is suspicious or misleading advertising. The ease by which information can be spread today makes it easier for misinformation and disinformation to circulate during elections, which could lead to voters making uninformed decisions based on inaccurate or misleading information.

Transparency in political advertising is vital. In a year of such importance for democracy, parties could agree to be held to the same standard of legal, decent, honest and truthful advertising that people expect from brands.

Responsibility and standards

As noted above, political advertising is not subject to the remit of the ASA, but lessons can be learnt from how the industry has built trust through promoting industry standards and responsibility. Over the last three years, awareness campaigns to promote the ASA have shown that increased awareness of the existence of a regulator builds public trust in advertising. Our results showed that those who saw or heard the ASA’s awareness campaign ads were over 50% more likely to trust the ad industry and the advertising it produces than those who didn’t.

When people know that adverts are expected to be legal, decent, honest and truthful, and can be ruled against and taken down if they are not, advertising has a better chance of building trust with people.

Holding political advertising to account

With the rise of AI, we are entering a new era of advertising. It is imperative that political parties and candidates produce campaigns that support responsibility, transparency and accountability, for example by disclosing their funding sources and appropriately targeting potential voters without bombarding them.

As campaign briefs are written and the first political ads of 2024 begin to enter circulation, we ask politicians to consider what standards they should hold political advertising campaigns to.

When used responsibly, campaigns can have the power to promote civic engagement, encourage young people to vote and hold political parties to account. We saw this in full effect during 2020 and 2021 when government advertising campaigns helped save lives and keep the public safe during the Covid pandemic.

By drawing inspiration from the principles that have built trust in the advertising industry, political advertising can play a pivotal role in shaping a more informed, engaged, and trusting electorate in 2024 and beyond.

To understand more about the Advertising Association’s public trust work, please get in touch with PGA@adassoc.org.uk

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