Ad Industry self-regulation has failed. Here's 28 reasons why

1. The entire system relies on members of the public making complaints. There is no pre-vetting

This means advertisers can put out whatever they want for public viewing - their ads will only be reviewed if and when members of the public go to the trouble of making an official complaint. If nobody complains, 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 individuals.

This is the approach that made it possible for a Foxtel billboard depicting an act of bestiality to be erected, for school buses to advertise sex trade show Sexpo and the URL for live-streamed sex shows, for Calvin Klein’s gang rape billboard, Honey Birdette’s orgy – and countless others – to all be advertised in the public space in the first place.


2. Many people don’t know how to navigate the complaints system

Ad Standards argues that because they receive only a relatively small number of complaints that the current system must be working well and that ads are therefore in line with community standards.

In reality, many people are not familiar with the complaints process, how advertising is regulated, or how they might go about making a complaint, or may not go to the trouble of sitting down and making a complaint.

A lack of complaints is not evidence of a successful regulatory system, but an ineffective system – one that is rarely utilised.

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

There are different complaints processes and bodies for outdoor advertising, TV content, and 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.

One CS volunteer described her experience making a complaint about a sex industry billboard – a process which lasted years with no satisfactory outcome, despite her continued efforts to pursue the issue. Is it any wonder community members might just give up?

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

After years of Ad Standards 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 broken 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 Ad Standards has no power to enforce their rulings

Ad Standards 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. Playboy-owned sex shop Honey Birdette publicly refused to abide 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!”

The case of Wicked Camper vans also highlights this particular failing of ad industry self-regulation. Despite complaints upheld against various vans with pro-rape and murder slogans and imagery (our last count was 78) the company continues to flout Ad Standards rulings. Australian states and territories moved to deregister offending vans because of Ad Standards’ inability to prevent their misogynist slogans appearing in the first place. (The vans would be de-registered where they didn’t comply with an Ad Standards determination on an upheld complaint.)


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 generate 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. So why would advertisers abide by the code, if they are free to disregard it?

7. Offending advertising remains in place over the weeks or even months while Ad Standards processes complaints

Ad Standards works slowly. By the time the Panel actually upholds a complaint against an advertisement in breach of the Code of Ethics, 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. One Perth strip club venue responded to Ad Standards that they changed their soft porn billboard every couple of months. By the time Ad Standards made their ruling, the strip club had already replaced it with new (equally pornographic) ad imagery.


8. Companies that withdraw offending advertising before Ad Standards 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 Ad Standards 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 Ad Standards will never have to include them in its records nor tarnish their low rate of upholding complaints. See examples here.

9. Ad Standards puts barriers in place to prevent community members from making complaints

Individuals who visit Ad Standards’ website to lodge a complaint must first answer nine questions correctly before even being allowed to access the online complaint form. Individuals are not permitted to make a complaint about sexist or porn-themed ads if they were first made aware of them by a lobby group – a requirement which appears to have been added in response to our movement.

10. Ad Standards frequently dismisses complaints over social media advertising on the basis the audience is adults

Ad Standards has dismissed complaints against sexualised and porn-inspired ad imagery on social media multiple times. They argue that users of Facebook and Instagram are aged 13 and older (which is not necessarily the case) and that people who are exposed to such content must seek it out – even when the complainant explains the post was a promotion that appeared in their feed unsolicited.

11. Determinations are made on the basis of feelings of Ad Standards panel members rather than an objective or evidence based approach, and no effective measures to gauge community standards

Ad Standards 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, [Ad Standards] 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.

12. Ad Standards does not consult with child development experts or engage with research documenting the harms of sexualising children

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

13. The sex industry has been given free rein to promote pornography and prostitution services to an all-ages audience, making the public space increasingly hostile to children

Ad Standards allows the sex industry to advertise in public spaces with a broad audience including children, even while using highly sexualised or porn-themed imagery. This includes billboards advertising strip clubs outside schools, school buses advertising the porn industry convention Sexpo or live-streamed sex shows (complete with website), and sex shop Honey Birdette broadcasting porn and BDSM-themed imagery in shopping centres around the country.

When one member of the community made a complaint about a mobile billboard advertising the sex industry near 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. Research indicates the onslaught of sexist and hyper-sexualised advertising messages and imagery harms young people

There is 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 sexualised imagery has the effect of normalising 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.

15. AMA has accused advertising industry of sexualising children but a decade 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 sexualising 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, a decade later, we are still having these same conversations.

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

Ad Standards needs to apply standards that more closely reflect the community concern about the appropriateness of sexually objectifying and porn-themed 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. Ad Standards routinely dismisses complaints for highly sexualised advertising material because there is “no explicit nudity”

Ad Standards continues to demonstrate their failure to grasp the concepts of objectification and sexualisation and how they harm women and children. It has not understood the documented negative impacts to women and children from a steady stream of media and images depicting women as sexual objects for men’s use and entertainment.

Ad Standards routinely dismisses complaints about sexist and sexualised advertising because as they point out, there is “no explicit nudity” (feels like we are setting the bar a little low). Women are reduced to headless, faceless, dehumanised sexual objects, or to a series of sexual parts or mere sexual entertainment for men, but Ad Standards has argued the ads are not a breach of the code because there are no private parts visible. This reflects an astounding lack of understanding from a regulatory body with a responsibility to be educated on these issues.

18. The code includes an inconsistent and weak definition of what constitutes 'sexualised'

Ad Standards frequently dismisses complaints about sexualised 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 sexualised by Ad Standards 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)

19. Defence of sexually exploitative advertising - 'relevant to the product' means objectified portrayals get a free run

Ad Standards 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 women’s objectified bodies for men’s sexual consumption.

Ad Standards ruled a life size poster of a woman’s g-string clad backside on a busy Adelaide street was not in breach of advertising codes because the ad was for a so-called Gentlemen’s Club. The pornified ad on a public street was deemed to be 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.

Ad Standards 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. 

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'. Ad Standards 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.

In other words, if the product is premised on sexism and sexual objectification, advertisers are permitted to use sexist and sexually objectifying advertising.

20. The updated AANA Code of Ethics still allows advertisers to broadcast BDSM and porn-themed imagery to an all-ages audience

In February 2021, the AANA updated its Code of Ethics in an attempt to address “overtly sexual images” and supposedly to prevent children’s exposure to harmful, sexualised content.

On the one hand, the AANA acknowledges that overtly sexual images are not appropriate in outdoor advertising and shop front windows, where they will be in view of children. But the updated code allows these same overtly sexual images in full view of children as long as they are “relevant to the product”. This qualifying statement renders everything that comes before it meaningless. Essentially it means that ‘overtly sexual’ content, including women in sheer lingerie, with exposed breasts, buttocks and genitals, posed with BDSM paraphernalia, becomes appropriate children’s viewing as long as it is “relevant to the product”.


In defending, justifying and facilitating children’s forced exposure to pornographic advertising, Ad Standards is complicit in the harm to children. Advertising self-regulation has resulted in children being exposed to Honey Birdette’s “So Kinky” shopfront ad campaign, women in BDSM fetish gear with dog collars around their necks, orgies, upskirting, sexual choking, and visible genitals. Involving or exposing children to pornography, fetishes and sexualised violence is a form of grooming and abuse.

21. Ad Standards are not in line with “community standards”

Some of the ads on Ad Standards top ten most complained about ads have been dismissed by the Panel. Hundreds of people might lodge a complaint against an ad, but Ad Standards will not necessarily uphold them. An UltraTune ad featuring convicted rapist Mike Tyson attracted 134 complaints, yet Ad Standards dismissed complaints. That hundreds of people can formally object to an ad only to be told the ad is not in breach suggests Ad Standards is not actually in touch with community standards.

Ad Standards also fails to understand that advertising shapes community standards and what people perceive to be normal and appropriate. Through essentially endorsing sexist, objectifying and porn-themed advertising for an all-ages audience, Ad Standards contributes to normalising such representations of women and shaping community standards.

22. Community members complaints can be dismissed without being reviewed by the panel

When an individual submits a complaint to Ad Standards, it can be rejected prior to being reviewed. One CS supporter, upon submitting a complaint, received a response explaining that while the pornified sex shop images of a woman in a sheer bodysuit broadcast to an all-ages audience were of concern to her, the images of “women in lingerie” were the type of ads that were “consistently dismissed”. As such, her complaint would not be considered by the Panel.

This was even though complaints against an almost identical ad had been upheld the previous year, noting that “the sheer material of the bottom half of the bodysuit is transparent and the woman’s pubic mound is clearly visible”.

23. Objectification of women not regarded as a discriminatory practice

In our submissions to government inquiries into advertising we have called for the objectification of women to be regarded as a discriminatory practice. As we recommended in our submissions, 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 advertising industry uses self-regulation to commercial advantage to the detriment of the community

Ad Standards 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, we have called for an independent body to be in charge of ad regulation, one with no vested financial interests.

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.

25. Ad Standards downplay and even mock complainants

Members of Ad Standards have been known to demonstrate an attitude of contempt for complainants. Former member John Brown was quoted in Ad Standards 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 Ad Standards 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?

Former Ad Standards chief executive Fiona Jolly was quoted in a piece last year celebrating the Ad Standards 40th birthday. 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.

26. Ad Standards transmits abusive and intimidating messages from advertisers to complainants

Ad Standards facilitate mockery and abuse of complainants by advertisers by publishing abusive personal attacks by advertisers in case reports. In response to a complaint over porn-themed advertising to an audience that included children, Honey Birdette called the complainant a “lunatic”, which Ad Standards published in the case report and sent to the complainant.

In response to another complaint over a sexist Honey Birdette ad referencing a woman’s vaginal lubrication, Honey Birdette accused the complainant of lying about the ad being promoted in her feed, even though she had submitted photos. Again, Ad Standards forwarded the abusive and insulting correspondence to the complainant, who expressed feeling intimidated and humiliated by the process. That’s certainly one way to deter people from making complaints against porn-themed advertising.

27. Ad Standards excuses sexist, sexually objectifying and demeaning representations of women

The system of ad industry self-regulation allows advertisers to sexualise, objectify, degrade and demean women with the endorsement of Ad Standards. We’re forced to ask – does Ad Standards have a problem with women? See the sexist ads endorsed by Ad Standards.

Ad Standards supplies defences and justifications for porn-themed advertising even where the advertiser has not provided them. Ad Standards asserts the imagined intent of the advertiser to justify their sexist and objectifying advertising. In one case report, they claimed an ad depicting a woman dressed in bondage gear in a shopping centre ad was intended “to invoke a feeling of strength”. On another occasion, Ad Standards suggested the choice to crop a woman’s face out of a porn-style image was “not an attempt to suggest she is an object...but rather was a creative choice relating to the theme and style of the photograph”.

28. Because we are sick of doing the Ad Standards' job for them

Collective Shout activists, supporters, and members of the community have spent countless hours alerting Ad Standards 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. The ad industry has proven 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.

See also

Self-regulated advertising: How many more examples of failure do we need?

Ad Watchdog in Australia a dismal failure

Why Australia Should Follow France's Lead on 'Degrading' Sexist Advertising

Keeping women in their place: Objectification in advertising

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  • Caitlin Roper
    published this page in News 2022-04-25 19:13:56 +1000

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