Skip To Content

    Tories Bring US-Style Political Attack Adverts To The UK In Time For The Election

    Paid-for political advertising on TV and radio has always been banned in the UK. But there's no such restriction on using YouTube, and BuzzFeed News understands the Conservatives are already spending the money.

    US-style political attack ads have quietly come to the UK, thanks to the Conservatives using a loophole in election rules to target voters by using paid-for YouTube ads.

    View this video on YouTube

    YouTube viewers in marginal constituencies told BuzzFeed News they have recently begun seeing paid-for "pre-roll" adverts from the Conservatives attacking Ed Miliband and linking him to Alex Salmond and Gerry Adams.

    The new campaign tactic, a first in UK politics, enables the Tories to completely bypass Britain's strict ban on paid-for political TV adverts and allows the party substantially more freedom to target video adverts at individuals in marginal constituencies.

    What's more, unlike expensively produced political party broadcasts which are shown in carefully allocated slots on national TV channels, this form of YouTube advertising could enable the Conservatives to produce fast-turnaround negative attack adverts within hours based on recent events.

    The party can then pay for these to be pushed out to hundreds of thousands of individual voters using the video-sharing site. This gives the Conservatives a massive campaigning advantage over their rivals and allows them to reach potential voters who do not read newspapers or watch TV.

    While the UK's political parties have been uploading clips to YouTube for years in the hope they go viral of their own accord, the Conservatives appear to have taken the game-changing decision to spend substantial sums of money actively putting them in front of viewers.

    In 2013 the courts narrowly upheld the continued ban on political advertising on British TV but the growth of online video advertising risks making this decision irrelevant.


    The Conservatives have an enormous amount of money allocated to online advertising during the campaign and are already spending around £100,000 a month on Facebook adverts alone. Now they have a direct route to the tens of millions of Britons who watch videos on YouTube every month.

    A Labour insider said the party does not have the same funds and as a result does not intend to spend money on YouTube adverts, meaning one of the internet's most successful forms of advertising will only be available to the Conservatives during the general election. Labour has repeatedly complained that they will be massively outspent during the general election by the Tories, who have raised enormous sums from donors in the financial sector.

    A spokesman for the Electoral Commission said they are unaware of any laws restricting paid-for YouTube political advertising in the UK, with the only limit being existing limits on how much a party can spend during a campaign.

    "All the party has to report is the cost of spending on advert targeted at voters during a general election," the spokesperson said.

    YouTube's ability to micro-target adverts by age, gender, and location means the the party can also ensure they only show paid-for videos to likely voters in marginal constituencies.

    For example, using Google's demographic data it is simple for the Tories to target males who are aged over 45 and have children.

    Google Ads

    This can then be refined to only target men who are concerned about politics, jobs, and their houses.

    Google Ads

    What's more, the Conservatives can even target the ads by postcode to ensure that viewers in different parts of the same constituency see different ads.

    Google Ads

    In this case BuzzFeed News has mocked up how the party could use YouTube to target male voters aged over 45 in one part of the marginal Hastings and Rye constituency.

    In addition, the Conservatives could run a parallel campaign showing a different video to different voters in the same constituency: Young parents in the same constituency could easily be shown a completely different advert promoting the government's childcare reforms.

    Although election spending rules remain grey in this area, it could also be possible for the Conservatives to carefully target YouTube viewers in individual constituencies using generic national adverts but count the money spent within the national spending limit – rather than the much smaller local candidate budgets.

    The Conservatives said they do not comment on election tactics and would not comment on where the YouTube attack adverts are being targeted.

    However, it is likely that the paid-for YouTube adverts will mainly appear in the roughly 90 marginal seats which the Tories believe are key to an election victory and where they are concentrating campaign resources.

    In short, the UK's election rules haven't kept up with the change of technology and there's very little that the election authorities or broadcast regulators can do about it this year. Instead, whichever party has the better advertising skills – and more important, the greater amount of money – is likely to enjoy an election boost.

    Jim Waterson is a politics editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

    Contact Jim Waterson at

    Got a confidential tip? Submit it here

    News moves fast. Keep up with the BuzzFeed News daily email!

    Newsletter signup form