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VFC press release even more misleading than their ad

By Steven | November 17, 2011

My complaint

As I’ve mentioned, I complained to the Advertising Standards Authority against anti-MMP group Vote for Change’s advertising. I thought it was misleading.

VFC changes its advertising 

Also, as I’ve mentioned, VFC fairly quickly changed its advertisting to address some of its misleading statements. In particular, it added an arrow on its diagram to demonstrate that voters who opt to keep MMP also get to vote on which alternative system they most prefer. Without that arrow, the ad could only be read as suggesting that, if you vote to keep MMP, you’ve got to stop there.

Advertising Standards Authority issues its decision

The ASA has now issued its decision on the whole complaint. My main complaint was “settled”, which happens when the advertiser backs down and agrees to make a change, so it’s not necessary for the ASA to uphold the complaint. My other complaints were dismissed, though one – my argument that it’s misleading to say that under MMP “the minor parties decide who is PM” was a majority decision. The minority found that it was likely to mislead or deceive people. The majority said that, “given the provision for liberal interpretation in the advocacy principles” and “taking into account the provision for robust advocacy”, it wasn’t badly enough wrong to breach the threshold of the rule requiring truthful presentation.

I’m not very surprised about this. The ASA very rarely upholds complaints about political advertising, and for good reasons. Still, I thought as least some of the VFC’s errors were so misleading that a complaint might stand, and even if it was rejected, it might at least prompt debate about some of their shonky arguments. (I’m not saying they’re all shonky).

VFC issues press release 

In response, VFC has put out a press release entitled “Political establishment target Vote for Change”.

Yep, that’s me. The political establishment. The press release doesn’t even name me -apparently it’s better for VFC to see themselves as victims of some shadowy powerful establishment.

Let me confess that I did sign up for the pro-MMP crowd’s mailing list and did offer to help them if they wanted help complaining about if there was any misleading advertising about the referendum. But then I saw Graeme Edgeler’s post excoriating VFC’s advert, and was so annoyed I decided to complain off my own bat.

I’m also called “political interests”, as in “political interests are trying to misuse the Advertising Standards Authority to shut down political debate”.

Do I really need to say this? Oh, all right. I’m not trying to stifle the debate. I think debate is good. I’m just trying to make sure the debate is not based on blatantly inaccurate information.

What VFC’s press release is about 

VFC’s press release then says I targeted VFC “for pointing out that to work MMP needs more MPs”.

Not true. I simply pointed out that their pamphlet encouraging people to vote for change and for SM said of all the other systems “Could work with 99 MPs”, without pointing out that the very statute that set up the referendum means that the 99-MP option isn’t on the table. As I said in the complaint, The ad entices voters to vote for alternative systems by touting advantages that, by statute, are not being offered. I think that’s misleading.

VFC didn’t even try to address this argument in their response. Their response is all about how the alternatives can work with 99 MPs, something I didn’t really challenge. And in fact VFC to their credit added some small print to their ad saying “All of the options at the current referendum are based on a 120 seat Parliament”. That’s all I asked. They seem to think it’s the right thing to do. Why is this suddenly about gagging them from making an argument?

Get this: their press release is all about VFC being unfairly targeted for making an argument that they themselves have apparently realised is misleading to voters, and corrected. (The ASA didn’t even require them to do this. The ASA didn’t uphold this part of the complaint. This may be the first time the ASA has ever not upheld a complaint against something that the advertiser has been prepared to change.)

What VFC’s press release neglects to mention

VCF’s press release doesn’t mention the changes they made to their ad after I lodged the complaint. (In fact, it says they “stand by” their material). It doesn’t mention the misleading diagram that they fixed or the footnote they added. It describes the ASA complaint as “dismissed” rather than “part dismissed/part settled”. It dwells on the 99-MP point as if my challenge was to the truth or otherwise of the proposition that the other systems can work with 99 MPs.

The other grounds of my complaint, and VFC’s responses

VFC doesn’t mention the other grounds of my complaint, so let me repeat them. As we’ve seen, the ASA is (usually) heavily weighted in favour of letting claims go, so there’s no finding that these claims are accurate:

1. The ad says that, under MMP, minor parties choose the PM. That is inaccurate. Under MMP, a party can receive a majority, in which case it would choose its own PM. This may even happen at the very next election… But even when coalition is necessary, it need not involve the minor parties. A National-Labour coalition has always been possible. In any event, it is inaccurate to say that the minor parties choose the PM. If it were so, why wouldn’t they choose their own leaders as PM? When a coalition is formed, why are we saying that it is the minor party that’s doing the choosing. In reality, in coalition negotiations, it’s the larger parties that have most of the bargaining power.

VFC say this is a “debating point”. They say minor parties holding the balance of power have “a considerable amount of power”.  They say an alternative way of looking at it is the “MMP nearly guarantees minority government”. They say others opposing FPP make statements “equally as misleading”.

Ahem. That last concession rather makes my case. It’s misleading. Note that none of the other arguments actually defends the truth of their claim. The closest they come is to say it’s “shorthand”.

2. The pamphlet contrasts MMP with the preferred option of SM. It says: “MMP allows list MPs who have been voted out by their local electorates to sneak back into Parliament on party lists”. In the context of the ad’s support for SM, it clearly implies that SM does not suffer from this flaw. Of course it does. The ad doesn’t tell us that the very criticism it mounts against MMP also applies to SM. It misleads by omission.

VFC reply – as if someone raised the issue – that “there is no doubt that SM is a compromise between the extremes of MMP and FPP”. (This is also rather deceptive: SM is much closer to FPP than MMP). Then they say they’re worried that MMP means too many party hacks and failed MPs get back into Parliament. Fair enough. But their ad didn’t say that. In the ad, any MPs sneaking back was too many. But it was conspicuously silent that SM allows them back too.

3. The ad says: “We want an electoral system that provides certainty for voters, rather than forcing them to wait for post-election negotiations. Vote For Change wants governments to be held to what they promised, not what parties manage to negotiate in coalition agreements.” Again, the ad suggests that SM offers a solution to this problem. But it doesn’t. SM offers no guarantee of such certainty, and of the absence of post-election negotiations.

VFC respond with a quote from a researcher that for all the world seems to support my point. It notes that “there is also a chance coalitions would be needed to form a government…”. Their main point seems to be – rightly – that SM is “more likely” to deliver majority governments. But of course, that’s not what they said.

You be the judge

There’s room for debate about how closely a body like the ASA should scrutinise political arguments for their accuracy. Many of my points were that VFC was misleading by exaggeration and omission. Perhaps it’s right and proper that the ASA shouldn’t uphold those.

But I still think VFC is fair game for criticism when its spin becomes deceptive.

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