Political advertising “blackout” loophole. Or not.

There’s a “blackout” on political advertising in electronic media the last three days before an election — but not on the Internet. Is this a loophole which needs closing? Or is the blackout a pointless relic from the past?

The rules on electoral advertising include this blackout…

…to ‘provide a “cooling off period” for electors to consider their stance on the issues without the influences of electronic media advertising’. This provision had been in place for about 50 years before being deemed unnecessary in 1991 when a complete election advertising ban was imposed. However, it was re-enacted in 1992 after a High Court decision declared the complete ban invalid. The ‘blackout’ can also be seen to prevent parties making claims late in election campaigns that cannot be scrutinised before election day.

But political parties will be able to continue broadcast-style advertising over the Web.

Questions for discussion:

  1. Why does the blackout only apply to “electronic media”? Are we really so vulnerable? Or is this just a 50-year-old echo of the “moral panic” that accompanied that dangerous new medium of television?
  2. If we need thinking time before making big decisions then why doesn’t the cooling-off period apply to all big decisions?
  3. Is “Internet advertising” more like TV and radio, or like newspapers?

By “broadcast-style advertising”, I guess the article means advertising that looks like TV commercials — moving images and sound. Perhaps that’s the main concern which led to the blackout: the high-bandwidth emotional engagement of moving pictures may indeed suspend rational thought. Is there any evidence for this?

Another (apparently) key issue is whether we’re talking about “push” or “pull” advertising — that is, whether the advertising is broadcast at us, or whether we choose to look at it.

Traditional broadcasting is beamed out in real time and supposedly the advertising is “pushed” to us whether we want it or not. I’ve always thought this is spurious. The TV has an off button. A newspaper is something we pick up and choose to look at the ads. Again, I think this is spurious. You still have to look at the content of a page to decide whether it’s an advert or not, and whether you want to read it — so you’ve already engaged with the message. And in any event, is the advertising less persuasive because you’ve chosen to look at it?

So, do we want a ban on updating the political content of websites three days before an election?