25 Reasons Why Ad Industry Self-Regulation is a Disaster

We've spent years dealing with the Advertising Standards Board, and in this time, we've seen the many flaws in the system- one we argue needs a complete upheaval. Of course, the industry likes things exactly the way they are. As the Australia Institute said in the Letting Children Be Children report, "… advertisers also have an interest in avoiding government scrutiny that may lead to stronger regulation of advertising in the interests of the general public…Self-regulation is a strategy that enables the industry to avoid such scrutiny."

We've made a list of flaws in the current system, and narrowed it down to 25. 

1) The entire system relies on members of the public making complaints, rather than any preventative measures or pre-vetting from the ad industry

This means the ad industry can put out whatever they want for public viewing, and it will only be reviewed if and when members of the public go to the trouble of making an official complaint. If nobody made a complaint, the ad will not be investigated. Industry self-regulation takes the onus off the advertisers and instead places responsibility for regulating the advertising industry on individual members of the community. 

This is the approach that made it possible for a Foxtel billboard depicting an act of bestiality, for school buses advertising Sexpo, and for Calvin Klein’s gang rape billboard (and countless others) to all be advertised in the public space in the first place.

2) Most people don’t know how to or that they even can make a complaint. 

The ASB argues that because they receive only a relatively small number of complaints that the current system must be working well. In reality, many people are not familiar with the complaints process, how advertising is regulated, or how they might go about making a complaint. This silence is then read as tolerance and as being in line with 'community standards' thus facilitating sext advertisements- and this remains the status quo. 

A lack of complaints in this context is not evidence of a successful regulatory system, but an ineffective system.

3) The complaints process is complicated, time consuming, different for different advertising mediums and rarely effective.

There are different complaints processes and bodies for outdoor advertising, TV content, and problematic online content. It is confusing, with many complainants getting the run around and told they need to direct their complaint elsewhere. There are often long periods of weeks or even months between correspondence, which frequently ends with legitimate concerns being dismissed.

Our QLD Volunteer Coordinator Angela described her experience making a complaint about a sex industry billboard and a process that lasted years with no satisfactory outcome despite her continued efforts to pursue the issue.

4) Complaints are rarely upheld, deterring people from spending time on making a complaint because it seems pointless.

After years of the ASB failing to uphold complaints, and even going to great lengths to justify and excuse sexist and objectifying advertising, many people no longer see the point of even making complaints. Why spend their limited free time making complaints when the foreseeable outcome is that no action will be taken? Members of the community have little faith in the system, as our supporters often express.

HOWEVER- as we work towards reforming this failed system, it is important that members of the community continue to make complaints where appropriate, as these complaints and the number of complaints is recorded.

5) The advertising code is voluntary, with advertisers in no way obligated to comply, and the ASB have no power to enforce their rulings.

The ASB can make a determination any given advertiser is in breach of codes and standards, but the advertiser can refuse to comply, with the freedom to go ahead and do whatever they want. Sex shop Honey Birdette last year refused to abide with a ruling after complaints about their bondage themed Santa commercial were upheld, saying on their Facebook page, “Nobody tells Honey B’s when to take down her signage!” 

Wicked Campers also highlight this particular failing of ad industry self-regulation. Despite complaints upheld against various vans with racist, misogynist and homophobic slogans and images, including "The best thing about oral sex is five minutes of silence", "Fat girls are harder to kidnap", “Women fake orgasms because they think men care”, “Blow in her face and she’ll follow you anywhere” (and dozens more) Wicked Campers continues to flout ASB rulings- and under the current scheme there is nothing anyone can do about it. On our last count there were 62 complaints upheld against Wicked Campers, but nothing has come of it.

6) There are no penalties for non-compliance, even for repeat offenders- and therefore no incentive for advertisers to change their behaviour

There is nothing in place to deter advertisers from breaching advertising standards. In fact, some companies exploit this hole in the system by deliberately producing advertising material intended to offend and attract controversy- advertising that will likely to lead to media attention and greater exposure for their brand. Brands can do this with the assurance they will be free from any consequences. Advertisers who flout the rules are effectively rewarded with free publicity for doing so.

7) ASB increasingly redefines what counts as advertising in order to avoid processing legitimate complaints

The ASB are apparently trying to decrease their workload by continually revising their definition of what constitutes advertising, refusing to consider complaints on an increasing number of advertisements. Despite having a category for social media advertising and the fact that more and more companies are relying on a social media presence to promote their brand and products, the ASB will no longer accept complaints regarding various social media adverts. This means brands can use highly sexualised and even soft-porn images on social media such as Instagram with the assurance they will not be subject to any regulation.

More recently, the ASB updated its complaints process so community members are barred from making complaints if they have not seen the advertisement in person- seeing an image or being alerted to it online is not grounds to make a complaint about sexually exploitative advertising. It seems the ASB is working hard to reduce numbers of incoming complaints.

8) The advertising industry uses self-regulation to its commercial advantage to the detriment of the community

The ASB goes to great lengths to justify sexist and sexually objectifying content in advertising- because it is in their own interests to do so. See some examples here. 

In government submissions, Collective Shout has called for an independent body to be in charge of ad regulation, one with no vested financial interests. 

9) Offending advertising remains in place over the weeks or even months while ASB processes complaints

The ASB work slowly. By the time they actually uphold a complaint against an advertisement in breach of codes, the particular ad campaign has often already concluded, with the advertising due to be replaced anyway. The advertiser in breach is in no way impacted or inconvenienced- they ran their ad campaign without disruption.

Advertisers are well aware of this fact and how to use it to their advantage, with a Perth strip club venue arguing that they changed their soft porn billboard every couple of months and by the time the ASB made their ruling they would have a different one in place. 

10) Companies that withdraw offending advertising before ASB make ruling escape ruling or any record of failure to uphold industry codes and standards

Sometimes as a result of community backlash, advertisers will withdraw offending ads before the ASB can make a ruling. This allows them to escape a critical ruling, or any record of their breach. Ads that attract this kind of negative media attention may be among the most extreme examples, yet the ASB will never have to include them in its records nor tarnish their low rate of upholding complaints. See examples here.

11) The ASB does not consult with child development experts or engage with research documenting the harms of sexualizing children

There is little if any engagement with experts or research into the role of sexualized advertising in sexualising children and the impacts on such sexualisation on children’s healthy development. There is also no evidence of engagement with research outlining the harms of sexually objectification of women or the well established links between objectification and men’s violence against women.

12) AMA has accused advertising industry of sexualizing children but years later nothing has changed

Back in 2012 the president of the Australian Medical Association Dr Steve Hambleton was quoted in a press release calling out the advertising industry for sexualizing children:

“These are highly sexualised ads that target children, and the advertising industry is getting away with it.

“There is strong evidence that premature sexualisation is likely to be detrimental to child health and development, particularly in the areas of body image and sexual health.

“The current self regulatory approach through the Advertising Standards Bureau is failing to protect children from sexualised advertising."

Despite various calls for government inquiries and legislative changes, four years on, we are still having these same conversations.

13) Sex industry given free reign to promote pornography and prostitution services to children

The ASB allows the sex industry to advertise in public spaces with a broad audience including children, even while using highly sexualized or porn-themed imagery. This includes billboards advertising strip clubs, complete with websites, outside of schools and school buses promoting the porn industry convention Sexpo (see ASB's ruling here.) When one member of the community made a complaint about a mobile billboard advertising the sex industry around her child’s school, she was informed that this is not against the law. 

One of our supporters shared her frustration at her inability to protect her child from sex industry advertising in public places:

"Catching a tram in the city today and what should pull up but the tram emblazoned with ads for Sexpo. My son turns to me and asks 'Mama, what's Sexpo?' While I am *totally* happy to explain the facts of life to my kids in a way sensitive to their development, when they are interested, I could not be more angry and disgusted that it was the sex industry who should be the first ones to put the word 'sex' into my FIVE-YEAR-OLD's mouth. And this is just the first of many times over the years that exploitative commercial interests will be protected over and above My son's right to develop a healthy sense of self and sex. The ad standards board will dismiss my complaint. Our media and ad regulation system is scandalously, devastatingly broken. It breaks our children, it breaks our community, and today it's broken my heart." (Name withheld.)

14) Defence to sexually exploitative advertising- ‘relevant to the product’

The ASB allows the sex industry to promote itself in the public space on the basis that the advertising is ‘relevant to the product’- the product in question being sexual services.

The ASB ruled a life size poster of a woman’s g-string clad backside on a busy Adelaide street was found not in breach of advertising codes because the ad was for a so-called Gentlemen’s Club, and therefore relevant to the product- because women’s g-string clad backsides ARE the product. The case report reads:

"The Board noted the complainant’s concern that the advertisement depicts an image of an almost naked woman that focuses on her bottom and that this is not appropriate for outdoor display where children can view it.

"The majority of the Board however noted that the advertisement is promoting a 'seductive competition' between 'Australia’s most desirable ladies'  and considered that the image is relevant to the advertised product."

The ASB also applied the same relevant-to-the-product logic to UltraTune’s ‘we’re into rubber’ BDSM themed TV commercials featuring two dominatrix women to promote car parts and accessories:

"The Board considered that the depiction of the two women… wearing rubber suits is relevant to the new range of ‘rubber’ tyres in store." See the case report here.

An advertisement for pornified lad's mag Zoo Weekly featured an image of a pair of breasts along with the slogan 'Two reasons to like our Facebook page'. The ASB responded as follows:

"The Board noted that the advertisement features a close up image of a pair of breasts and considered that whilst the image is exploitative of a woman’s body it is in keeping with the content of Zoo magazine."

15) Public spaces are becoming hostile to children as the ASB allows sex industry to advertise openly

The ASB dismissed complaints about a billboard advertising a WA strip club’s ‘Miss Nude’ competition, featuring topless women in g-strings pictured from behind. The argument was made that the busy city street would likely be frequented by customers of the strip club, despite the presence of restaurants, an ice cream store and a Time Out arcade on the same street. See ruling here.

Only a short time after, the ASB dismissed complaints for another porn-inspired strip club billboard in the area, citing the previous ruling as a precedent.

Do children have the right to exist in the public space? To go outside without being exposed to pornographic imagery and promotional material for the sex industry? 

16) Code requires advertisers to ‘treat sexuality with sensitivity to relevant audience’ but public space dominated by sexually objectifying advertising despite presence of children

The ASB needs to apply standards that more closely reflect the community concern about the appropriateness of sexually explicit advertising material and the inability of parents to restrict exposure of children to such material.

If sex shops can use posters and shop window displays of a clearly sexual nature to advertise its products in an environment frequented by children without being considered in breach of the code designed to regulate such occurrences, it is clear that the regulatory system is not working.

17) Code includes an inconsistent and weak definition of what constitutes sexualized 

The ASB frequently dismisses complaints about sexualized advertising arguing that the ad in question is only ‘mildly sexualised’ and not inappropriate for viewing by a broad audience, including children.

A few examples of advertising deemed not overly sexualized by the ASB include:

-a video of a woman doing a striptease to sell men’s hygiene products (read more here)

-a billboard featuring a young woman on her back, top unbuttoned with her nipple only just concealed, sucking on a lollipop (read more here)

-a clothing catalogue featuring the image of a woman who is naked except for her thigh high stockings, concealing her private parts with her hands (read more here)

See more examples of sexploitation ads deemed not sexualised here

18) ASB routinely dismisses complaints for highly sexualized advertising material because there is no explicit nudity

Time and again the ASB have indicated their failure to grasp the concepts of objectification and sexualisation, what they are, what it means for women and for children exposed to a steady stream of media and images depicting women as sexual objects for men’s use and entertainment.

The ASB routinely dismisses complaints about sexist and sexualized advertising because as they point out, there is no explicit nudity. (Feels like we are setting the bar a little low there.) Women can be pictured in wet white t-shirts to sell coffee beans, they can be headless and faceless, positioned on their backs, with references to sexual practices, or reduced to two breasts, but the ASB will argue the ads are not in breach because there are no private parts visible. This reflects an astounding lack of understanding from a regulatory with a responsibility to be educated on these issues.

19) Complaints for sexually exploitative advertising are dismissed because the code requires content to be both “exploitative AND degrading”

The language in the code is weak and deliberately ambiguous, allowing for easy manipulation. One example of this is the need for advertising to be ruled not just degrading and not just exploitative, but both exploitative and degrading in order to be in breach. This allows the ASB to dismiss complaints on the basis that they were only degrading or only exploitative.

20) ASB goes to great lengths to justify and excuse sexist, sexually objectifying and demeaning content of women

This is how the ASB justified an ad featuring a headless woman pouring milk all over her semi-naked body to sell coffee beans:

“The Board noted that the woman is voluntarily pouring the milk over herself...the image is not exploitative or degrading, with references to ‘bathing in milk’ often associated with luxury (Cleopatra for example) rather than any demeaning activity.”

See here for more examples. 

21) Determinations are made on the basis of feelings of ASB members rather than an objective or evidence based approach, and no effective measures to gauge community standards

The ASB consists of a small group of people who dismiss or uphold complaints on the basis of their own feelings about them- people who may or may not be qualified to make such judgments on the psychological impact of various forms of media or effectively gauge community standards, which themselves may be impacted by the normalisation of sexualised advertising.

As Dr Lauren Rosewarne, author of Sex in Public: Women and Outdoor Advertising writes in her book: "Whether inadvertently or not, the ASB’s routine dismissal of complaints does mould community standards. The increasing number of sexist advertisements shown, compounded with the small number ever withdrawn, works to give the impression that sexist advertising is tolerable."

There is little if any engagement with child health professionals, mental health professionals or research into the harms of sexualisation or objectification of women despite increasing community awareness and concerns into these issues. Collective Shout have called for codes to reflect the growing body of research in regard to the sexualisation of girls and the objectification of women.

22) Research indicates the onslaught of sexist and hypersexualised advertising messages and imagery harm young people

Over the last ten years there has been a significant body of global research into the sexualisation of children, as well as the role of media and advertising, and negative physical and mental health outcomes for young people. The bombardment of sexualized imagery has the effect of normalizing sexist attitudes.

Advertisers have an ethical responsibility not to use sexual exploitation to sell products and services, but in Australia, they are not being held to account as there are no codes regarding the psychological harm done to the viewer. 

23) Objectification of women is not regarded as a discriminatory practice

In our submissions to government inquiries into advertising and outdoor advertising, Collective Shout has called for the objectification of women to be regarded as a discriminatory practice. As we recommended in our submissions, found here and here, any code of ethics should reflect the growing body of research in regard to sexualisation of children and objectification of women. Objectification of women and sexualisation of girls should be considered to constitute sexual harassment and discrimination, and treated as threats to the health, well-being and status of women and girls.

24) The ASB downplay and even mock complainants

Members of the ASB have been known to demonstrate an attitude of contempt for complainants. Former ASB member John Brown was quoted in the ASB's 2007 annual review as saying, "I'm still amused after all these years at the sometimes petty approach of some citizens to the very mild attacks on their sensibility in certain ads. But keep your letters coming. This is democracy in action and also very amusing." This same member was also quoted in a 2007 ASB document as saying,"Some people see sexual innuendo in everything. Could it be that society has become...more moralistic in their outlook and it would seem, lacking in humour?"

The ASB chief executive Fiona Jolly was quoted in a piece last year celebrating the ASB's 40th birthday (not much to celebrate, of course). Despite the many and varied complaints regarding sexual objectification of women as a form of discrimination, Ms Jolly instead opted to focus on the most trivial complaints, such as those over nose picking and flatulence in advertising. Even the example used to illustrate discrimination was a humorous ad featuring a man donning himself in Libra pads pretending to be a warrior.

Ms Jolly reframed complaints regarding the objectification of women as conservatism, rather than objections to discrimination or sexism. "Certainly over the 40 years, in terms of sex, the board has decided at some points that it can be more liberal. But at the moment I'd say we're looking at a fairly conservative era of what types of things are accepted and how women are depicted in advertising."

25) Because we are sick of doing the ASB's job for them 

Collective Shout activists, supporters, and members of the community have spent countless hours alerting the ASB to exploitative advertising and filling out online complaints forms. This is not our job. It should not fall to members of the public to regulate the advertising industry for them. They've proved again and again they cannot be trusted with this task. It's time to start all over again- not just with a complaints process, but a body that actually regulates advertising. 

Have you previously lodged a complaint with the Advertising Standards Board? We'd love to hear about your experience. Contact us here.


Why you should make a complaint to the Advertising Standards Board 

Ad Watchdog in Australia is a dismal failure

Collective Shout responds to ASB failures with #AskAdStandards

Lodge a complaint

To see complaints that have been upheld, dismissed, and advertising that has been withdrawn prior to ASB ruling click here


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