Should Ad Standards take election ad complaints?

President and CEO Jani Yates explains the stance the organization takes on political messages (and wonders if it should change).
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By Jani Yates

Federal election advertising is in full swing, which means media companies are making tough business decisions to run an ad and risk potential backlash of Canadians for controversial ads.

For example, a billboard paid for by a third party that was aimed at rallying support for the People’s Party of Canada had the message “Say No to Mass Immigration” and created quite a reaction. To set the record straight, Ad Standards could not approve nor take complaints for the ad, as it falls under the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards’ definition of political advertising. The decision to take the ads down was solely the media company’s – in this case, Pattison Outdoor – in response to the power of social outcry. I found it interesting how quickly “everybody” denied any accountability or responsibility for the ad. We do offer a consultation service for political entities should they wish to take advantage of the service, but we did not evaluate this ad for compliance with the Code before it went up.

Ad Standards does not take complaints about political or election advertising. In this regard, Canada is similar to other countries with voluntary advertising self-regulatory systems, such as the U.S., U.K. and Australia. In fact, Ireland is the only country where a self-regulatory body does take political ad complaints.

Success for us is to receive no valid advertising complaints, which would mean the ecosystem is working. That would be utopia, but with the speed of digital and social marketing, political and advocacy advertising, there is more room for potential complaints. Our role is to help build and maintain public trust, keep us all on the correct side of regulations, and maintain trust and stability in the medium.

So why don’t we take political or election ad complaints? It goes back to the organization’s founding premise, which states that the role is not to stifle freedom of speech, nor act as a “nanny state,” especially not in the context of the political process. But I have recently found that this position can be highly divisive.

We had Advanced Symbolics check how Canadians feel about political, election and government advertising. To no one’s surprise, Canadians don’t really distinguish “political” ads from typical government advertising. To maintain trust in advertising, now more than ever, Canadians are looking for accuracy. There is also a rising trend in frequency, and perhaps acceptability, of political attack ads – dare I say there is a growing American sensibility? Attack ads are created to polarize and deliver one side of a debate, and it is a growing trend. Canadians have started to see the first round of ads with the primary focus on opponents’ alleged weaknesses, instead of on the particulars of their platforms. Is that kind of ad fair, accurate and truthful?

Another illustration of the trend are ads created for shock value from advocacy and special interest groups. Again, I stress we are not here to squash debate, nor are we the purveyor of taste. We now limit complaints to ten per ad, as we are a not-for-profit association and an email barrage (often times seeded by social media) makes no difference. One complaint is all it takes to start the process. And these special groups have invested in sophisticated legal resources who aim to “shoot the messenger” as we respond to consumer complaints.

Should Ad Standards consider taking political and election complaints? Should election and political advertising be held to a different set of standards than all other types of advertising? These questions are open to debate.

Jani Yates is president and CEO of Ad Standards.