Advance NZ’s refusal to pull a contentious Covid campaign ad highlights a five-fold increase in election complaints to the advertising watchdog. Jonathan Milne reports.
Newspaper election advertisements claiming the Covid-19 death rate is comparable to the seasonal flu have been ruled to be unfounded and socially irresponsible.
The new rulings by the Advertising Standards Authority have highlighted the difficulty policing political advertising, with candidates now able to go straight to voters with false or unsubstantiated claims.
In 2017 the Authority received 16 complaints in the lead-up to the last election; this year it has received 80 and counting, many of them about candidates’ allegedly spurious claims, mostly on social media.
“The ASA should not be trying to interfere in election debate and the free speech of political parties. They have no standing in regulating free speech. The evidence to back up our claims were in the advert in question at the bottom. We stand by the ads’ content.” – Jami-Lee Ross
The Authority’s two latest rulings are both against campaign advertisements for Jami-Lee Ross and Billy Te Kahika’s Advance NZ Party. The different adverts appeared in the NZME-owned Te Awamutu Courier, Bay of Plenty Times and Northern Advocate.
But although NZME will comply with the order that the adverts not run again, there is nothing to stop the party now distributing them to private mailboxes or on social media.
Last night, the party’s co-leader Jami-Lee Ross told Newsroom they would not comply with the ruling against using the advertisements again.
“The ASA should not be trying to interfere in election debate and the free speech of political parties,” he said. “They have no standing in regulating free speech. The evidence to back up our claims were in the advert in question at the bottom. We stand by the ads’ content.”
Advertising Standards Authority chief executive Hilary Souter said the Authority was a voluntary organisation; it relied on its members (which include most major media, advertising and marketing groupings) to comply with its rulings.
“It’s disappointing that we’ve got really good engagement from all the other parties but that Advance NZ have chosen not to engage,” she said. “But we don’t have any legislative framework behind us – we haven’t needed to in the past.”
It was not possible to stop political parties from continuing to distribute their advertisements on social media or direct to mailboxes, and nor did the Authority regard itself as an arbiter of truth and falsehood. She said the veracity of many claims, especially in political campaigns, were in the eye of the beholder.
She said much of the five-fold increase in complaints was about social media ads, and also referendum messaging. The Authority would rule on the accuracy of specific statements of purported fact, but not on broad claims and opinions.
Last year, Justice Minister Andrew Little said he had little confidence in the Authority, after it rejected his complaint against a National Party advertisement.
“I just think they’re not equipped to do the quasi-judicial job of ensuring that somebody who asserts in a paid advertisement that it is in fact,” Little said. “The test that the Advertising Standards Authority seems to use now is that if the advertiser believes it to be true then it will be true.”
Other rulings against political advertisements
The Labour Party has apologised for distributing flyers in the Northcote electorate that wrongly claimed the Government had built 600 new homes in the electorate. In fact, Kāinga Ora built 74 new homes in the past three years. Of these, 67 were part of redevelopments on land already owned by Kāinga Ora, and seven were new builds.
There were 14 complaints about a New Conservative Party flyer that claimed “Babies can be lawfully and easily aborted up to full term”, “Every New Zealander owes $32,000 in Government debt” and “Drugged drivers already cause more deaths than drunk drivers.” The Advertising Standards Authority deemed the statement on abortion to be opinion, but found the last statement wrongly purported to be factual. The advertisement was therefore misleading, and the complaint was partly upheld.