With young Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS, pictured) at the helm and trying to present a more modern image of Saudi Arabia, a bureaucrat in the Kingdom’s Centre for International Communication must have thought it would be a good plan to advertise MBS’s Vision 2030 during his visit to the UK in early March 2018. Why not? The two countries have historically had close political and military ties and some things are changing in Saudi Arabia. The script was written: “Saudi women have been allowed to drive and cinemas are set to open again this year, after a 35-year ban. The entertainment sector is bracing itself for a new era – one of concerts and cultural events. The Kingdom is reducing its reliance on oil by investing in various projects to achieve the 2030 vision of turning Saudi Arabia into a hub connecting three continents” etc.

Being Saudi Arabia, money was no problem. So Sky 1 was approached and, as is usual with TV advertising, the broadcaster asked the pre-broadcast advertising clearance service, Clearcast, to vet the one minute advert. Clearcast knew of course that there is a ban on political advertising in the UK (see  sections 319(2)(g) and 321(2) of the 2003 Communications Act). After making various changes to the advert, Clearcast passed it for broadcast, arguing that it was a “restrained advertisement” focussing on “the longstanding relationship and the increased prosperity through trade to [the] benefit of” both the UK and Saudi Arabia” and was “akin to a public service advertisement”. (There is an exemption under the legislation for public service ads).

The advert was shown 56 times on Sky 1 over a period of three days in early March. Three viewers complained to Ofcom that it breached the prohibition on political advertising.

Political advertising complaints often cause a mild stir internally at Ofcom: they are rare and normally the issues are interesting. This case was no exception. Ofcom sought comments from Clearcast (see above); the advertising agency, Beaux Media (“the ad was to promote the relations between the two nations and had no political intentions”); and Sky (we relied on Clearcast).

Ofcom however was not convinced. (See Ofcom Bulletin 360, 28 August 2018). In a careful and finely balanced decision, the regulator decided that: the advert was not of a public service nature (always a push as an argument because Ofcom rightly in my view tends to interpret this exemption narrowly); and in the context the advert promoted positively Saudi Arabia and was designed to persuade UK viewers of the benefits of the UK maintaining a relationship with it, at a time when such a relationship was a matter of controversy.  Ofcom stated that context was important here and that the regulator would consider each case of political advertising on its individual facts.

So important lessons from this case in my view for Clearcast (which needs to be more aware of the context in which an advert will be broadcast at a future date) and broadcasters (you remain responsible for any breach of broadcast advertising rules, even if you asked Clearcast to carry out this role). Meanwhile, as the dust settles on this case, MBS has reason to smile: during his controversial visit to Britain 56 one minute adverts extolling the virtue of his Vision 2030 were shown on a fairly high profile commercial TV channel, and the only kick back has been a gentle rap on the knuckles by the TV regulator published almost seven months later.