Ad Standards panel Chair makes solo decision to approve Honey Birdette's revealing crotch ads

Refuses to submit complaints re porn styled image for review

Over many years, Collective Shout has drawn attention to the problems of our self-regulated advertising system.  Recent experiences have caused us to focus on one particular stage of the complaints process: triage. At triage, the Ad Standards Community Panel Chair reviews a complaint and either dismisses it (effectively denying the complaint Panel review), or forwards it to the Panel for consideration and a ruling.  

A week after lodging complaints about Honey Birdette’s recent Janet bodysuit ads and receiving auto-reply emails confirming receipt of my complaints, I received another email from Ad Standards advising that while the images were of concern to me, the Community Panel Chair - considered that they featured “women in lingerie” and were to be of the type of ads that have been “consistently dismissed” by the Community Panel. Accordingly, complaints against the Janet bodysuit ads would not be forwarded to the Community Panel for review.

But late last year, the Ad Standards Community Panel upheld complaints against an almost identical ad, noting that:

“the sheer material of the bottom half of the bodysuit is transparent and the woman’s pubic mound is clearly visible”.


Image: (Left) 'Luna', Upheld by Ad Standards Community Panel, November 2018; (Right) ‘Janet’, Dismissed without Panel Review, July 2019

I raised this with Ad Standards and asked how the Janet bodysuit images that were stylistically identical to the Luna ad could be denied Panel review.

Another reply from Ad Standards ensued. It stated that while Ad Standards takes prior rulings into account, in the case of Janet, Luna was “not as relevant as it is a still image which allows more focus on the details of the image. In this instance the fast moving montage video does not allow for the same focus.”

The Chair decided that flashing pubic mounds displayed in a montage of images (images that are indistinguishable from one that breached Australian Association of National Advertisers Code of Ethics in November 2018) were neither “overtly sexualised”, nor did they comprise “inappropriate nudity”. In essence, they single-handedly determined that ad for the Janet bodysuit was (to use Ad Standards’ language) “appropriate for the broad audience that includes children”. 

This solo-made determination raises several questions.

  • Where is the evidence that a montage doesn’t allow for the same focus as a still image?
  • Does the Chair have current data on the time required to cognitively process a viewed pubic mound?
  • Why were the facts that several different images were used in sequence in the Janet bodysuit ad, and that the video paused for several seconds on the final image used as grounds for denying the ad Panel review, when taken as a whole the Janet bodysuit ad gave viewers plenty of time to make out features contained within?
  • Is it plausible that the bright, flashy medium and fast pace at which images were rotated heightened - not lessened - a person’s focus on the images? 
  • And what about Honey Birdette’s new mode of video montage advertising, where images are shown on rotation at varying speeds?
  • Will Honey Birdette ads here onwards escape Panel scrutiny because the Chair thinks that montage videos don’t allow for the same focus as still images and are therefore appropriate for viewing by an all-age audience - even if pubic mounds are visible?
  • Would Luna have met the same fate had it been shown as a flashy sequence of still images rather than a single, still-shot? 

Still, the Chair rules. There’s no getting around them. So, while Ad Standards boasts a diverse Community Panel, the Panel’s value is lessened by the sheer fact that at times, members of the public are unable to access it. Do Panel members know about these cases that the Chair intercepts? Are triaged ads ever audited or given account for by other people?

And how does Ad Standards use the data on pre-Panel review dismissals? Do these numbers add to their aggregate data on compliance and help boost their defense of self-regulation?

Moreover, do I detect an air of gaslighting in Ad Standards’ correspondence? They explained that when assessing a complaint under the “Consistently Dismissed” procedure, the Chair considers what a “reasonable member of the community would take from the advertisement”. Are they insinuating that I - and other complainants who have their complaints dismissed prior to Panel Review - are not “reasonable” members of the community? This is concerning. Perhaps it’s a means of discouraging us from lodging complaints in the future? I was determined to get a proper explanation of why my complaint against Janet was denied Panel Review while complaints against Luna were upheld, so I pursued communication with Ad Standards. Our inkling is that many people simply accept the Chair’s kibosh on their complaints without rebuttal. It’s complicated enough to go through the basic complaints process. Who, especially following advice that she is out of step with “reasonable” people, wants to stick her neck out further and attempt to defend her original complaint? And if Ad Standards thought I was unreasonable last time I complained, won’t they think the same next time? Why bother lodging any more complaints? Gaslighting accomplished.

Of course, a triage process is needed. But a triage process that depends on the sensibilities of one person and that provides no avenue for challenge is neither robust nor fair. I accept Ad Standards’ assertion - the Community Panel “can’t possibly review every complaint”. Ad Standards must meter its resources. But when denial of Panel Review demonstrates arbitrariness and inconsistency, and when it is based on refutable claims, members of the public should be able to raise a challenge.

The lunacy of Luna vs Janet demonstrates the need for a new regulatory system for our ad industry - one that stops the harmful, sexploitative advertising activities of repeat offenders like Honey Birdette and protects the public from dead-end complaints processes.


Take action!

Contact The Minister for Communications Paul Fletcher MP and let him know advertising self regulation is not working. We want an overhaul to advertising regulation in Australia and recommend a new independent system that is effective. 

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