Related video: Simon Clarke loses connection during interview on levelling-up

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In the latest evidence which suggests “levelling up” is a bit of a let down, the department with a responsibility for the government policy of “realising the potential of every place and every person across the UK” has failed to make it clear that their adverts are really adverts.

Seven commercial articles, all published on Reach plc local newspaper websites such as the Birmingham Mail and CornwallLive, all went live on 13 March this year with a headline titled “Levelling Up! What is it and what does it mean” for the area in question.

Honestly, we’re still waiting for an answer to this ourselves.

It turns out the articles describe “levelling up” as being about “making sure everyone from every corner of our country has access to decent, well-paid jobs, and good public transport, hospitals and schools”.

“Levelling Up is about closing the gap between the ‘best off’ parts of our country and the ones that have been struggling.”

However, it seems as though the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (which we’ll affectionately refer to as Luhc for the rest of this piece) have been struggling, as these ads breached advertising rules enforced by the UK’s watchdog, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

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Lisa Nandy MP and Alex Norris MP – Labour’s shadow Luhc secretary and minister respectively – raised the seven commercials with the ASA as they questioned whether they were “obviously identifiable as marketing communications”.

Rules on clear advertising are set by the Committee of Advertising Practice (Cap), with the ASA able to refer advertisers who “persistently” break the rules and “don’t work with us” to other organisations – such as Trading Standards and Ofcom - for stricter action.

After being approached by the ASA, Luhc argued the labelling of the articles as adverts was “both visible and prominent” as the word “advertorial” was in a frame in block capitals, and many of the articles featured an infographic with the logos of HM Government and Luhc displayed.

Meanwhile Reach plc, owner of the outlets, said the stories appeared in the “partner stories” section of their relevant websites and the “advertorial” label travelled down the page as the reader scrolled through the article.

That is, until they got back in touch with the ASA later to say this feature wasn’t in place when the campaign ran in March.

They also argued the labelling of the author as a “commercial writer” in the piece’s by-line would be another hint it was an ad, and the three ways in which readers could have viewed the ads – through Facebook, Google’s Display Network and the website’s homepage – were all labelled.

While the ASA agreed the adverts were labelled, the regulator also concluded they “did not reference” Luhc and “it was not clear from the text” that the article attached was an ad as well.

They said: “We considered, within the context of the full-page ads, that it was not clear that the heading related to the ads and that readers were likely to overlook this text. That was reinforced with the by-line that stated “By Millie Reeves Commercial Writer” which was placed directly underneath the headline.

“We also did not agree with Reach that the average reader would understand from the term ‘Commercial Writer’ that the article was an ad.

“If the [advertorial] label did move as the user scrolled, its position would remain far-right aligned, which we considered meant that it would continue to be overlooked by readers.”

It’s rather amusing that something right-aligned would be ignored by the general public, but we’ll leave that joke for someone else to make.

They also concluded the HM Government logo on the infographic meant readers were likely to think the image was “derived from a government source” and used in an editorial article, rather than the graphic meaning the whole article was an ad.

“We told the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and Reach Plc to ensure that all future marketing communications were prominently and clearly identifiable as such,” the ASA said, ruling the adverts cannot reappear in their current form.

In a statement, Shadow Levelling Up Minister, Alex Norris said:

"In the middle of the worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation, struggling families will not understand why ministers spent millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on what was effectively Tory propaganda. The fact this campaign broke advertising rules just adds insult to injury.

“With millions of families struggling to make ends meet and our front-line services buckling under the pressure of rising costs, we need a government that will spend taxpayers’ money wisely, play by the rules, and deliver growth for every part of the country. Instead we have an economic crisis, made in Downing Street and paid for by working people.”

Indy100 has approached Ms Nandy and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities for comment.

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