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Here’s what would actually be news in polling – and three rules for reporting polls

It’s only news if you’ve compared lone polls to all the others, compare it to that pollster’s past and know each firm’s outliers.

Read this piece on May2015.com, our election site, for all the graphs that come with it.

On Monday an ICM poll suggested the Tories will win the election by more than a million votes. Today a TNS poll indicated Labour will win by 2 million. That’s quite a change.

In reality, little has changed. We’ve had six polls since Monday morning, but May2015’s 5-day Poll of Polls hasn’t moved much: Labour’s lead has shortened from 2.3 to 1.5 points.

Over the weekend we suggested the race has scarcely changed since the party conferences in early October. Labour have lost support in Scotland, which is why they’ve dipped since September, when they had a 3-4 point lead. But the party may not have slipped much at all in England & Wales.

The race is alternating between a small Labour lead (1-2 points) and a tie. The Tories have only twice led May2015’s 5-day Poll of Polls in 2015.

Outliers are being given air time by punters tired of a lifeless campaign.

That analysis looked at more than 150 polls over the past five months. But this week has shown how a lone poll can excite pundits into thinking everything has suddenly changed.

Outliers are being given air time by punters tired of a lifeless campaign. That’s all that’s really happening. The TNS poll should be taken with a pinch of salt: they’ve put Labour ahead like this before (by 6 two weeks ago, 7 in early January and 7 in mid-December). The ICM poll was more surprising, but it’s still just one poll with a 3-point margin of error.

So what would actually make news in polling? Here are three things we wouldn’t brush over so quickly.

1. YouGov hand one party a series of significant leads

YouGov poll five times a week. They are the highest-profile pollster, publish in the Sun andSunday Times, and have UK Polling Report’s Anthony Wells manning their numbers (not to mention Peter Kellner, Nigel Farage’s favourite pollster).

So far in 2015 they’ve published 33 polls. The leads they’ve given each party have all been within the margin of error (± 3 per cent). They swing between showing ties and small Labour leads, with the occasional small Tory lead.

If they had put Labour ahead by 7 today, it would have been news (their little noticed overnight poll put Labour up 1). It would still have been an outlier. But if they were to consistently put either party ahead, by say 3-4 points, something will have changed.

2. Populus start handing the Tories’ leads

Populus, the UK’s second most-prolific pollster, have given Labour a lead in every one of their thirteen 2015 polls. On average, they give them a 2.3-point lead. That’s in-line with the 2-point leads they gave the party throughout late 2014.

A series of polls showing the reverse, with the Tories in front by a few points, would be news.

3. Ashcroft … becomes more consistent

The Ashcroft polls that make news – Labour up five in late November, Tories ahead by six in mid-January – have proven to be outliers. Eight of his past twelve polls have shown a tie or put the parties within a point of each other.

It would news if he started putting one party ahead regularly, or stopped occasionally putting either ahead by a bunch. Not that a series of ties will win much coverage.

*

YouGov, Populus and Ashcroft are the most regular pollsters. But there are six others. Here are three general rules for when any poll is released:

1. Compare it to all the other polls

ICM and Ipsos MORI are the oldest pollsters, and they publish once a month (in the Guardianand Evening Standard respectively). The rarity of their polls and platform these papers give them – along with their name recognition in Westminster – makes their numbers newsworthy.

But they should always be compared to other polls at the time. If we look at how ICM’s numbers have compared to our Poll of Polls each month, we can see how this week’s ICM poll was more different than any other in the past year.

On average, they had been different by 1.9 points across the eleven polls before this week’s. So on Monday we should have expected anything from a 2.9-point Labour lead to a 1-point Tory lead.

That’s why the 4-point Tory lead was news. It suggested a shift for ICM. But because they only poll one a month, we can’t put too much stock in the number. They put the Tories ahead twice last year (in May and July) before reverting to a Labour lead.

2. Compare it to that pollster’s previous polls

We can’t put too much stock in individual polls, but we should track the trend. The trend among each pollster’s numbers is what really tells a story, not the specific lead they’ve shown that week or month.

Plugging every poll into a ‘Poll of Polls’, as we do, is helpful, but it irons out the way each pollster is shifting over time.

Ipsos MORI’s monthly polls are a showcase for tracking the trend. Since January 2014, they’ve gone from showing a consistent and comfortable Labour lead to showing a mix of small Labour leads, Tory leads and ties.

In other words, we’ve gone from a 6-7 point Labour lead to a 1-2 point Lab lead, which is what our Poll of Polls shows.

The specific monthly numbers are really approximations. MORI are saying “This is the state of the race, ±3 points”. [1]

3. Be aware of each pollsters’ past ‘outliers’

We treated TNS’s 7-point Labour lead lightly today because they’ve put Labour ahead by at least 6 points in three of their last four polls.

If Opinium, the Observer’s pollster, published a similar poll we’d have a fairly similar reaction. They have put Labour ahead by 5 or more three times in the past three months, although recently they’ve had fewer outliers.

The precedents of ComRes and Survation, two of the industry’s newest firms, shape the way we think about them too.

When Survation put Ukip on 24 per cent again in a few weeks, it won’t mean much.

Survation, who poll irregularly for theSunday Mirror and privately for Ukip, think Ukip are polling 23-25 per cent. These aren’t occasional outliers so much as systematic differences. Our Poll of Polls puts Ukip on 14-15 per cent. So when they put Ukip on 24 per cent again in a few weeks, it won’t mean much.

Correspondingly, they give the Greens 2-4, rather than 5-6, per cent. It’s the same story with ComRes’ monthly-ish poll for the Independent on Sunday. [2] They put the Greens low and Ukip high (close to 20 per cent).

If Survation or ComRes started putting Ukip on 10-12 per cent and the Greens on 8-9 per cent, that would be news.

For a broader look at why pollsters differ, check out Anthony Wells’ recent take.

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May2015 is the New Statesman's new elections site. Explore it for data, interviews and ideas on the general election.

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA