It was pretty clear that Tony Abbott didn’t want to talk about climate change at the G20. And after a bit of public shaming on the topic, we can see why.  (Standing up for coal?  Really?)

It’s no wonder climate change activists were keen to advertise around Brisbane when the G20 leaders were arriving. However, not all the owners of advertising space wanted to show their ads. In particular, the Brisbane Airport refused to display billboards with slogans about climate change because they were ‘too political’.

Political advertising raises some interesting issues for activists, publishers and the activists’ targets. Here are the top points to keep in mind, wherever you stand.

  1. Activists can’t force publishers to run their ads. But they can make a news story about a refusal to publish. That’s exactly what the climate change activists did in Brisbane. They claim that instead of 7000 people seeing a billboard at the airport, over 4 million saw the news story instead. A win for the activists. A bit of bad press for the airport for saying no to the ads, but maybe the lesser of two evils from their perspective.
  2. In many cases political activists are not legally accountable for the accuracy  of their claims. Normal rules around misleading advertising only apply to conduct ‘in trade or commerce’, which may exclude activist groups depending on the circumstances. That said, accuracy is key to their credibility. If they get things wrong, it’s easy ammunition for their opponents. Odds are, the opponent will find the error and run their own campaign to highlight it. But if the opponent is a business, it will be bound by the usual misleading advertising laws. Unfair? Maybe, but that’s what the law says.
  3. Defamation is a risk for any advertising targeting individuals. There are strong defences available for statements that are true or relate to government and political issues. But that doesn’t create a carte blanche to bag out the pollies (no matter how much they deserve it). The best approach is to be accurate, reasonable, and not malicious.
  4. There are extra rules for advertising about elections. If the ad might affect voting at an election then it needs to comply with those rules. The closer we are to an election, the more likely that an ad could affect voting, so the more likely that it comprises election advertising. The main rule is that election advertising must include details of its authorisation.