By now, most political folks will have seen the new wave of ads that the Conservatives launched (coincidentally, on Blue Monday, allegedly the most depressing day of the year.)
What's intrigued me for some time is why political ads are not subject to the same rules as the private sector. If Michael Ignatieff was Starbucks, say, and the Conservatives were Tim Hortons (yes, I chose those examples mischievously) those ads would probably be declared out of bounds.
So yesterday I called Advertising Standards Canada (ASC), talked to vice-president Janet Feasby, and learned the following things.
- Ad standards are subject to a voluntary code in Canada and political entities are exempt.
- Generally, Canadian ad makers and consumers aren't fond of negative ads in the private sector. Simply as a master of taste and preference, it's unlikely that a Tim Hortons, a department store or a bank would go after a competitor in an ad in this country. But if they do, here are some guiding principles they have to heed:
- "Advertisements must not contain inaccurate or deceptive claims, statements, illustrations or representations, either direct or implied, with regard to a product or service. In assessing the truthfulness and accuracy of a message, the concern is not with the intent of the sender or precise legality of the presentation. Rather, the focus is on the message as received or perceived, i.e. the general impression conveyed by the advertisement.”
- “Advertisements must not omit relevant information in a manner that, in the result, is deceptive.”
- “Advertisements shall not demean, denigrate or disparage any identifiable person, group of persons, firm, organization, industrial or commercial activity, profession, product or service or attempt to bring it or them into public contempt or ridicule.”
- In the rare cases where one business does go after another, the target of the negative ad has recourse to the dispute-settlement system of ASC, and in some cases, the courts. Usually the mediation takes anywhere from two to four weeks.
Even though political parties are exempt from the code, ASC wishes they would go along, just to live up to the example of the private sector, and mainly so advertising doesn't get a bad name. Here's a 2008 advisory that the council issued to that effect.