October 12, 2022 8.30 pm This story is over 13 months old

Watchdog finds government “Levelling Up” ads in local newspapers broke rules

The advert has been banned by regulators

The Department for Levelling Up has been found to have breached advertising rules, following the promotion of a government campaign on billboards and in local newspapers – including a publication in Grimsby.

A campaign ahead of the May local elections this year saw adverts placed on billboards and inside a number of local newspaper websites, namely Reach plc publications such as the Grimsby Telegraph and the Leicester Mercury.

The advertorials were for the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, with the Labour opposition claiming that some £2.15 million was spent on the marketing drive to highlight policies within the levelling up agenda.

A watchdog inquiry by the Advertising Standards Authority looked into whether the adverts were “obviously identifiable as marketing communications”, following complaints by Labour MPs Lisa Nandy and Alex Norris, the shadow levelling up secretary.

The first of these newspaper advertorial’s appeared on the Grimsby Telegraph website on March 13, with the headline “Levelling Up! What is it and what does it mean for Grimsby” with text underneath stating it was compiled by a commercial writer.

The ASA felt that “the average reader” would not understand the term ‘commercial writer’ to mean the feature was in fact an advert, and considered that readers would see it as a piece of editorial content.

The word “ADVERTORIAL” was featured on the far-right hand side and an infographic featuring the HM Government logo was found at the bottom of the article – along with a link to the government website in the final sentence.

However, the Advertising Standards Authority says the adverts would “generally” be accessed via a newspaper homepage or by readers who interacted with a Facebook or Google ad.

That would have included a labelled statement of “What is Levelling Up?” but makes no reference to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. The ASA says the placement of the word ‘advertorial’ as well as the font size would be likely overlooked by readers.

Analysis of the case by the ASA concluded that the ads breached rules 2.1, 2.3 and 2.4 of Edition 12 of the CAP Code, under regulations surrounding the recognition of marketing communications.

The ASA has stated that these ads must not appear again “in their current form”, asking the Department and Reach plc to ensure all future marketing communications were “prominently and clearly identifiable as such”.

A DLUHC spokesperson said: “This was a small element of an important public information campaign about Levelling Up.

“The advertorial labelling was visible and prominent, carried the HMG logo and was in Reach plc’s house style for sponsored content.

“However, we accept ASA’s conclusions and will ensure these are reflected in any future materials.”