The Advertising Standards Bureau is reportedly commemorating 40 years of self- regulation with the release of a book, Irk, eeek, oh! & really? 40 years: self-regulation meeting community standards in advertising.
While decades of industry self-regulation might be cause for celebration for the industry itself, not everyone is applauding the system that gives free reign to advertisers to the detriment of the wider community.
In reality, self-regulation has failed so badly that various government inquiries have been held to explore the many flaws in the current system. The AMA has called for yet another inquiry, accusing the Advertising Standards Bureau of “failing to protect children” from sexualized ads targeting children.
The Advertising Standards Bureau administers a national system of advertising self-regulation through the Advertising Standards Board. The responsibility of the Advertising STandards Board is to determine whether advertising is in breach of the Australian Association of National Advertisers code of conduct.
We have identified a range of inadequacies in this system, a voluntary and weak code of ethics open to interpretation, lack of pre-vetting, the Advertising Standards Board’s lack of power to order removal of advertisements, inadequate monitoring, de-sensitisation of panel members, little to no consultation with child development experts, and no meaningful penalties to provide any real incentive for advertisers to change their behaviour.
Members of the community who go to the trouble of making a complaint usually see it dismissed, and convinced of the uselessness of the regulatory body, never bother making a complaint again. The ASB points to this relatively small number of complaints as evidence that they are doing a great job regulating advertising.
You can't blame people for giving up on a system that treats complainants with such contempt. John Brown a former member of the Advertising Standards Board, demonstrates. As told to the Senate inquiry, Brown was quoted, in one of the Advertising Standard’s Boards own publications, 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."
The public has lost faith in the ad industry to regulate itself. We are increasingly hearing from supporters who are understandably frustrated and disillusioned with the ASB processes:
"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."- Hannah*
“A few months ago, my husband and I took our three small children out for lunch in town. There was a billboard advertising the “Miss Nude” competition at a strip club, with various women who were naked aside from g-strings, cupping their naked breasts. I was furious. I try so hard to raise happy, healthy, resilient children and instill in them a sense of respect for women- and these messages can be undermined by corporations whose ‘rights’ are prioritized more highly than the rights of my small children?
”I made an official complaint, which was dismissed because the billboard ‘did not show private parts’ and supposedly the building (in one of Perth’s main city streets) was in ‘an area with a high proportion of adult venues’ and the ASB thought it would be mainly customers of the strip club who would see the billboard. Apparently entire streets can be deemed off limits for children now!”- Katie *
Last week ASB chief executive Fiona Jolly spoke with ABC. Despite the many and varied complaints regarding sexual objectification of women as a form of discrimination, Miss Jolly instead shared examples of complaints about nose picking and flatulence in advertising. Continuing with the pattern of selecting the most trivial of complaints, even the example used to illustrate discrimination was of a man donning himself in Libra pads and pretending to be a warrior. Is this all a big joke to the ASB?
Miss Jolly also addressed complaints about sex in advertising that she said had been fairly consistent. She told ABC, "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." (Bold ours.)
Again, sex is confused with sexual objectification, and objections to sexually exploitative and objectifying depictions of women are reframed by the ASB as conservatism.
The Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee, Review of the National Classification Scheme: achieving the right balance recommended “community concerns about sexualisation…and the objectification of women” should be a key principle in every classification decision. The 2011 House Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs Inquiry into outdoor advertising similarly recommended that objectification of women be seen as a form of discriminatory practice.
In January 2012, the Australian Association of National Advertisers amended its code to address objectification.
Section 2.2 Advertising or marketing communications should not employ sexual appeal in a manner which is exploitative and degrading of any individual or group of people.
The Advertising Standards Board has taken full advantage of the wording of this clause. To be in breach of the code, the ad must be 'exploitative and degrading.' There are a number of determinations that dismiss complaints because they were exploitative but not degrading.
Examples of complaints dismissed by ASB and their unbelievable justifications
Examples of Fresh One complaints dismissed by ASB and their unbelievable justifications
That time we publically called out the ASB on Twitter
AMA calls for new inquiry into sexualisation of children
- a weak code of ethics, open to interpretation by
- There is no pre-vetting of advertisements. Ads are not assessed until a member of the public takes the time to make an official complaint.
- After a member of the public makes the complaint, the process for the Bureau to make a determination can take months, and all the while the ad is still being used.
- Even if the ASB upholds complaints, by the time they order an ad to be removed, often the particular ad campaign has run its course- a fact that advertisers exploit when they deliberately release sexually exploitative advertising and capitalize on the free publicity from media coverage.
- The very nature of industry self-regulation means the industry gets to police itself, with their own vested financial interests.
- The ASB has no power to enforce its determinations, which is why companies like Wicked Campervans, Honey Birdette and Aussie Boatloans can refuse to comply with rulings and continue to disregard advertising standards.
- There are no penalties for advertisers that breach community standards, even serial offenders.
*Pic of strip clubs outside schools
*Pic of Sexpo banner flying over school
*Pic of Sexpo school bus