Is it time for tougher standards on political marketing and advertising in Canada?

Posted on April 14, 2012 in Governance Debates

Source: — Authors: – news/canada
Published On Fri Apr 13 2012.   Susan Delacourt, Ottawa Bureau

Last year, about 50 people were riled enough by an “edgy” ad for an Edmonton hair salon to lodge formal complaints with Advertising Standards Canada.

Roughly the same number of people were troubled by political ads they saw in the welter of elections in Canada last year.

Guess which people got results?

The Edmonton hair salon, which had featured a woman with a black eye in its ad, received an official reproach from the ad-standards body.

As for the political ads — no follow-up, just a brief mention in the annual consumer complaints report. Advertising Standards Canada has no say over political ads.

It’s a case of double standards or, more to the point, one standard for the private sector, none for politics.

Canada’s political parties don’t have to adhere to the advertising code that protects Canadians from false, misleading or offensive pitches in the private sector.

Give someone a black eye in commercial advertising, in other words, and face formal sanction. Give your political opponent a black eye, though, and you could just end up with more votes.

Astrid Dimond, a voter in Mission, B.C., ran up against a similar wall when she tried to stop the Conservative Party of Canada from repeatedly phoning her home in the 2011 federal election.

Though Dimond kept rebuffing the appeals for money and support, the calls kept coming. So she complained to Elections Canada and received this reply: “Nothing in the (Canada Elections) Act prohibits or regulates the use of telephone solicitation. Consequently, no issue of compliance or enforcement arises.”

Dimond has listed her number on the national do-not-call registry, which means she has the legal right to avoid annoying calls from private-sector telemarketers.

But because political parties (as well as charities, polling firms and media organizations) are not covered by the do-not-call list, there is essentially no legal or guaranteed way to shut down pesky political calls to your home. Other options offered to Dimond were to simply “hang up” or to check the CRTC code on telemarketing.

Political telemarketing, however, is like political advertising — largely above the rules we’ve put in place to govern duct-cleaning companies or hair salons.

The rationale, obviously, is that political parties are a fundamental part of democracy, so we don’t want to limit their freedom of speech or expression.

But when does this privilege turn into a licence for lower codes of behaviour than we would tolerate from companies trying to sell us goods and services?

In the past decade, all the political parties have been amassing huge databases, filled with personal information about voters. The Conservatives have their Constituent Information Management System (CIMS), the Liberals have “Liberalist” and the New Democrats have “NDPVote.”

It’s all about “micro-targeting,” the big new thing in politics, allowing parties to tailor-make their advertising, platforms and even “boutique” tax policies to suit the constituencies whose support they’re courting.

You may feel uneasy about these databases. And you certainly are welcome to ask what kind of information the political parties are storing about you.

Fred DeLorey, the Conservatives’ spokesperson, for instance, says the party will tell citizens what’s in the CIMS database about them if they request it.

But citizens don’t have any legal right to see this information; no one can force the parties to disclose the data.

“No, our office does not have jurisdiction over political parties under either the Privacy Act or the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA),” said Valerie Lawton, a senior communications adviser with the Privacy office.

Advertising, phone soliciting and market-research databases are all powerful tools in the private sector — so powerful that companies want standards, so that no one drives down the value of the marketing tools or, worse, the products they’re selling.

The political class in Canada escaped those standards because they claimed to be serving a higher purpose. But the rise in negative political ads and the worrying, lingering cloud over so-called “robo-calls” in the past election are calling that higher purpose into question.

It may be time for Canadians to demand better standards of political ads, telemarketing and databases — and the clout to hold the political parties responsible when they fail to meet those standards.

Why should political parties be getting away with marketing tactics we wouldn’t tolerate from people who are selling us stuff?

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