Explainer: Advocacy Advertising

Complaints about advertisements from political parties, or groups expressing concerns about issues that are the subject of public debate such as fluoridation or legislation of marijuana are often some of the most challenging complaints our Complaints Board adjudicates on.

Under the Advertising Standards Code, these advertisements are classed as ‘Advocacy Advertisements.’ By their nature, they advocate for the view of the advertiser (or group/organisation/party) and are usually visible at a time when there are strong views being expressed in support or against a particular issue.

Last year during the General Election and Referendums in New Zealand, the ASA received complaints about 101 advocacy advertisements. Because of their often polarising and controversial nature, advocacy advertising generates many complaints to the ASA and were about a quarter of the complaints we dealt with in 2020.

Advocacy advertisements are challenging for several reasons:

  • They are not as straight forward as an advertisement for a product or a brand. Why? Well, when you engage in advocacy advertising you are promoting a belief or a point of view – usually about a matter of current public debate. There are often different views being promoted by different advertisers. For example: a group opposed to water fluoridation and a group who support it.
  • The freedom to express these views is supported by section 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, which states that everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form.
  • The ASA requires advertisers to support statements presented as facts in their ads with evidence. However, the role of the ASA is not to decide who on either side of the debate is right – it’s to ensure the principles of advocacy advertising are observed.

Under the rule that applies to advocacy advertising in the Advertising Standards Code – the identity and position of the Advertiser must be clear. This helps provide context for consumers.  A group opposed to water fluoridation publishes statements about studies that support their view.  Readers can assess the statements knowing the group is opposed to mass fluoridation.

For more information on advocacy advertising and the principles that underpin this type of advertising, please click here.