The 'Stop Stella' billboard shows how urgently we need reform in political advertising

PUBLISHED: 10:48 02 October 2019 | UPDATED: 10:54 02 October 2019

The billboard targeting pregnant Labour MP Stella Creasy in her constituency in Walthamstow, which was later taken down. Picture: Stella Creasy

The billboard targeting pregnant Labour MP Stella Creasy in her constituency in Walthamstow, which was later taken down. Picture: Stella Creasy

Stella Creasy

After a billboard company pulled an advert targeting a pregnant female MP with anti-abortion messages, campaigner BENEDICT PRINGLE asks why there were no regulations against it.

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Labour's Stella Creasy was the recent target of an advertising campaign by anti-abortion campaigners Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform UK (CBRUK). The group, which is the UK branch of an American group, ran posters on sites in Creasy's Walthamstow constituency which featured an unborn baby, a headline saying "nine-week living foetus" and the url StopStella.com.

Creasy has been an outspoken supporter of a woman's right to choose and led the campaign to extend UK abortion rights to Northern Ireland. Creasy is also pregnant and has been public about suffering from miscarriages.

Initially, a member of the public raised the matter with the police and was apparently told that there was no law being broken. Creasy then took to Twitter to criticise the media owner Clear Channel for running the advert and making money from the CBRUK campaign. This was followed by calls from a range of high-profile MPs and commentators for the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) to ban the adverts.

The attacks by CBRUK on Creasy are distasteful and likely to cause distress, particularly to women who are having to (or have previously had to) make difficult choices about abortion and childbirth.

However, it is unlikely that any law or regulation has been broken.

This is because there is no code for political advertising and there isn't a body with responsibility for regulating it.

MORE: Inside the industry campaign to stop the rot in political advertising

Clear Channel decided to take down the posters, although in doing so the company highlighted that it always complies with UK advertising codes and this campaign "met these requirements".

The ASA has acknowledged that it received complaints about the adverts, but it has been reported that it won't investigate further now that the posters have been taken down.

If CBRUK wanted to run these advertisements in other channels in Walthamstow, it's hard to see what law would prevent them from doing so.

Some have questioned whether or not the advertisements are indeed 'political'. The ASA define political advertising - the only type of advertising that they don't rule on - as adverts with claims that fulfil three criteria:

1. The claims are related to a "a local, regional, national or international election or referendum"

2. Their function is to "influence voters" in the election/referendum

3. This is their "principal function"

The CBRUK adverts seem to fit all three and therefore are not subject to regulation.

The poster and the website featured called out Stella Creasy and it was running in her constituency; it's hard to interpret this in any other way than the advertising's primary intent was to harm Creasy's chances of holding her Westminster seat at a future general election (which is very likely to be very soon).

You may not be convinced by the argument that the CBRUK adverts fit the definition of a political advertisement as defined by the ASA - but most would at least accept the definition of what constitutes 'relating to' an election is vague.

Indeed, the rules are so lacking in clarity that CBRUK felt they were able to run the ads, the Metropolitan Police have apparently said no law has been broken, Clear Channel (at least initially) didn't see the problem, and the ASA hasn't yet intervened.

As a result, Clear Channel has been put in a very difficult position where they have had to decide whether to suffer adverse publicity on account of pro-choice campaigners or risk criticism (and possible legal action for preventing free political speech) from the anti-abortion lobby.

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Media owners' reputations are constantly put in jeopardy because of the lack of political ad regulation.

Political advertisers don't have a rulebook that they can adhere to.

And the public - and seemingly a fair number of MPs - have no idea what the law is.

Stella Creasy - or any member of the public - should have been able to refer to a code which outlines rules governing political advertising and there should have been an independent body to whom a contravention could have been reported to and adjudicated on.

The fact that there isn't either of these things is bad for the public, bad for media owners, bad for politicians, bad for political advertisers, bad for the reputation of the ad industry and bad for democracy more generally.

The public and politicians who were understandably so outraged by this advertising campaign now need to turn their ire towards the refusal of government to bring political advertising in line with every other form of advertising in this country.

Benedict Pringle is an advertising executive and co-founder of the Coalition for Reform in Political Advertising. You can read more about the campaign here and follow it on Twitter at @clearpolitic5.

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