Advertising Standards - I have an idea for an ad!

Board of Bad Ads

For the public, many ads are just plain on the nose. At the receiving end of thousands of complaints a year is the ASB – The Advertising Standards Bureau – and its review panel, known as the Board. And when it comes to bad ads, the Board abides…

Advertising standards and the big fuss

Every year there are those ads that make people go ‘nope’. And in many cases it’s not hard to see why. What is harder to discern is why complaints against one ad may be upheld, while those against another – perhaps even from the same campaign – are dismissed.

Needless to say, the Advertising Standards Board gets kind of busy.

2016 – A banner year for complaints

This year for instance saw Meat & Livestock Australia’s ‘Operation Boomerang’ campaign – where a fictitious military operation under the command of Lee Lin Chin torches a bowl of kale, in a tongue-in-cheek campaign encouraging people to eat lamb for Australia Day – attract 376 complaints ranging from cultural insensitivity to implications of violent terrorism and the vilification of vegans.

Meanwhile, an Ultra Tune campaign outraged viewers with its depiction of two women whose car breaks down on a railroad track, while a male voice-over intones ‘Avoid unexpected situations. Get your car serviced at Ultra Tune’. Yet another Ultra Tune ad – this time for a Wimbledon tie-in – featured the same two women, now dressed in tight black rubber suits fondling tennis rackets to sell tyres, under the tag-line ‘We’re Into Rubber’.

It has recently been declared Australia’s second most-complained about ad of all time, with 418 people perceiving it to be discriminating, exploitative and degrading.

The MLA complaints were dismissed, with the Board determining that the ad was clearly intended as a parody of a fantasy/action film. Meanwhile, the first of the Ultra Tune ads with the car breaking down had the complaints against it upheld, while ‘We’re Into Rubber’ – suggestively dressed women and all – had all complaints dismissed.


“I just don’t like it…”

So who makes these decisions and how? In Australia, oversight lies with the Advertising Standards Bureau, or ASB. It is the advertising industry’s self-regulatory body, which oversees the Advertising Standards Board. The ASB makes all of its findings – including detailed rationales for their decisions and advertiser’s responses – available from its website. The Bureau is funded by the industry itself, with a levy from advertisers based on gross media expenditure.

The process is as follows. Members of the public make their complaints in writing to the Australian Standards Bureau. Once received, the ASB assess the complaint against an extensive set of Codes and Initiatives. If the complaint has merit in light of the above, it is forwarded to the Advertising Standards Board (or simply, the Board) to be considered in depth.

The board consists of 20 members of the community who are not a part of the advertising community or advocacy and special interest groups. It meets twice a month to consider any complaints, before making a determination based on whether it perceives any breaches of the Codes and Initiatives have been made. If it determines to uphold a complaint, the advertiser is asked to remove the advertisement as soon as possible.

Striking the balance

Most recently, acting on a complaint from the Obesity Policy Coalition (OPC), the Board banned a Paddle Pop ad based on the dubious insertion of an appeal to ‘enjoy Paddle Pop as a treat within a balanced diet’.

The rationale? Children distracted by the audio and visual content of the ad are unlikely to heed any such message to self-regulate their energy intake – an assertion which most parents would sagely nod their heads in agreement with.

So it’s not a perfect system, but it works. Mostly.

After all, taste and humour are almost entirely subjective things. And determining whether exploitation has occurred is often not as straightforward as one might expect. The independence of the Board’s review process however, and the degree and rigour evident in its publicly available determinations, help set an outer bounds to what is ‘acceptable’, while maintaining an admirable degree of creative freedom.

Advertisers need to the room to be a little daring. For the most part though, the solution to the more obvious complaints appears simple. Advertisers need to do better – particularly in their depiction of women, and in the messages they present to kids. The time of un-ironic titillation simply to sell car parts – or of cartoon characters slinging sugar to pre-teens, for that matter – is best left behind us.

Back to Posts

For the public, many ads are just plain on the nose. At the receiving end of thousands of complaints a year is the ASB – The Advertising Standards Bureau – and its review panel, known as the Board. And when it comes to bad ads, the Board abides…