A Clash of Rights: Free Speech in Corporate-Advocacy Advertising, and Democratic Failure in Australia and The United States

Stream: Panel 89 - Comparative Politics: Media & Politics: Media Freedom 
Date: Wednesday, 28 September 2016
Time: 1.30 pm – 3.00 pm


This paper focuses on the role of corporate advocacy advertising in distorting and undermining democratic debate in liberal democracies. Advocacy advertising, defined by O’Toole (1975) and Sethi (1977), is a form of institutional corporate or organisational advertising designed to influence policy. In an absolutist sense, advocacy ads are a form of political free speech, however, as access to advertising media is limited to those with sufficiently high financial resources, it has a distortive and misinforming effect. I will argue that advocacy advertising undermines key democratic principles, including the need for informed and open debate. Consequentially, Australia should consider adopting a partial prohibition on broadcast political and advocacy advertising similar to the United Kingdom’s Broadcasting Act (1990). To support this argument, I will use a comparative analysis of Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom to show that extant legislation and case law in has already established certain limitations on free speech to protect the public interest, such as prohibitions on misleading or deceptive product advertising. The philosophical basis for such laws – such as protecting consumers from market failure – is highly analogous, and should be extended to protect citizens from a type of “democratic failure” caused by advocacy advertisements.


George Rennie (Presenter), University of Melbourne
I am a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne in the final year of my candidacy. My research focuses on lobbying and public relations strategies, primarily in the form of advocacy advertising, in Australia and the United States.

I am currently a course coordinator and lecturer for American Politics at the University of Melbourne (as of the second semester 2016). From 2010 to 2015 I have lectured and tutored in politics and economics at the University. Previously, I was course coordinator in Environmental Economics at RMIT in 2014 and 2015, and otherwise co-lectured in economics from 2010 to 2013.