Image: (Left) 'Luna', Upheld by Ad Standards Community Panel, November 2018;
(Right) ‘Janet’, Dismissed without Panel Review, July 2019
Recently, I lodged a complaint with Ad Standards. Using its online complaint form, I reported a larger-than-life, porn-themed advertisement on display in my local shopping centre in Perth, WA. A week later, I received a notice from Ad Standards advising that while the ad was of concern to me, the Community Panel Chair considered that is was “an image of a woman in lingerie”, and that my complaint was of the type that has been “consistently dismissed” by the Community Panel.
Naturally I was confused. The ad which was the subject of my latest complaint was virtually identical to another that the Panel had previously described as “sexually explicit”’ and upheld complaints against. Once an ad is denied panel review there is no other avenue for having a complaint heard. I - the consumer - had hit a dead-end, thanks to an arbitrary and inconsistent approach to complaints.
This most recent example of failure of the self-regulatory system caused me to reflect on the long history of the body’s double-standards, inconsistencies in ruling, and seeming inability to place community well-being ahead of the vested interests of corporations.
Ad Standards is the agency entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring advertising content meets community standards and aligns with the AANA Code of Ethics. Part of its role is to administer a self-regulated complaint-handling process. However, Ad Standards has a years-long documented history of failure to do its job.
For example, the sex industry has been free to promote porn and prostitution services to children. Oral sex and body-shaming slogans, and graphic porn-themed ads have passed Community Panel scrutiny. The Community Panel has trivialised children’s exposure to sex shop porn-themed advertising, stating that the audience - which includes children - sees a “woman posing in underwear”. When complaints have been upheld, it is often long after the ad has run its course and been replaced with new ads. Ads can remain on display weeks and even months after a ruling has been made because, while Ad Standards can give a verdict that an ad breaches Code, it can do nothing to have the ad taken down.
Image: Ad Standards dismisses complaints against graphic, porn-themed ad, July 2019
So, if Ad Standards can’t do what it is supposed to – that is, protect the community from harmful advertising – what purpose does the complaints handling process serve? Why are concerned citizens continually stymied by the system? Eight years ago a Federal parliamentary committee acknowledged the failings of self-regulation and stated that in the event of sustained failure, a self-funded co-regulatory system would need to be examined. But nothing has been done to act on that and in the meantime Ad Standards perpetuates the ruse that self-regulation is working.
To back its claim, Ad Standards cites data from a self-commissioned 2017 report prepared by Deloitte Access Economics: “Assessing the benefits of a self-regulatory advertising complaints handling system”. For example, CEO Fiona Jolly claims Ad Standards is “able to remove non-compliant content in a time frame that far exceeds any government regulator time frame”. This claim is underpinned by Deloitte’s research that compares Ad Standard’s current self-regulatory system with a hypothetical, government-regulated system. Comparisons were made on measures of cost, compliance, efficiency, effectiveness and responsiveness. It claimed (based on this hypothetical) a self-regulated model performed better than the proposed alternative. Conclusion: Self-regulation is serving the interests of Australian consumers.
But it’s not. Years-long, community-driven campaigns - necessary because of systemic flaws - demonstrate Ad Standards’ serious shortcomings. We know that self-regulation fails the public and aids repeat offenders such as Honey Birdette, which has been deemed in breach of the Code 38 times at the time of writing. In the absence of penalties, advertisers which have no interest in upholding community standards are free to advertise how they like, when they like, for as long as they like.
How did a report that was supposed to assess the benefits of a self-regulatory advertising complaints handling system miss all this? Surely a thorough and objective assessment would have flagged such obvious, repetitious failings.
Advertising a ‘low-risk’ problem - a faulty premise
An immediately noticeable flaw in Deloitte’s report is the assertion that advertising is a low-risk problem. Drawing from factors listed in the Best Practice Regulation Handbook, the report states that “advertising content that is not aligned with community standards is unlikely to put people in significant danger”. The claim goes against a growing body of evidence drawn from global research that verifies harms of exposure to sexually objectifying imagery in advertising and media.
As our State and Federal Governments battle the scourge of violence against women, they are increasingly factoring in the real-life harms of exposure to this harmful imagery. The report’s claims are entirely out of touch with contemporary understanding of the impacts of media and advertising on men, women and children.
System aids non-compliance while numbers hide it
Compliance measures how well advertisers cooperate with the self-regulated complaints-handling process. If an advertiser reports that the ad has been replaced with new ads, this is considered ‘compliance’ - even when the old ad was due to be replaced anyway, and regardless of the fact that the new ad may also breach the Code. In this way, Ad Standards aids and abets non-compliance, and - to its own advantage - calls it compliance.
Noting an overall rate of 80 per cent, the report tells us that compliance is “historically high”, and that non-compliance is “unlikely”. There’s no qualification given to the idea that 80 percent is ‘high’. Nor is due attention given to the fact that out of every 100 cases, 20 were incidents of non-compliance. Given that Ad Standards’ job is to protect the community from non-compliant activity, a 20 percent failure rate should have raised red flags.
The report tells us that if not for one particular advertiser, Ad Standards’ compliance rate would be as high as 94 percent. Imagine: non-compliers getting in the way of the notional benefits of self-regulation! It’s the same as saying that Ad Standard’s track record would be perfect, if only they didn’t have to do their job. But casting off outliers is not the privilege of a body whose job is to deal with outliers. In a brief consideration of non-compliance, the report ponders the need for a “stronger form of incentive” for non-compliers. Legislation, it notes, might be used to “reinforce the self-regulatory scheme”. Ultimately, the report uses the idea that most advertisers comply most of the time as grounds for rejecting the idea that stronger incentives are broadly or immediately needed. It fails to adequately consider the 2 out of 10 cases where advertisers do not comply, or what that means for the community. When non-compliance manifests as floor-to-ceiling public displays of pornified representations of women, or in public messages that advocate for women’s rape and murder, there’s no defense for dismissing the need for stronger incentives for recalcitrant advertisers.
When in amongst the 8 out of 10 compliers were advertisers whose modus operandi is to breach the Code, it is absurd to use compliance as a marker of the system’s success. Statistics on compliance shouldn’t hide non-compliance. And, rather than facilitating non-compliant behaviour, a successful system should have the means for stopping repeat offenders.
Arbitrary measures of ‘Efficiency’
The report describes efficiency as “the proportion of complaints responded to, the time taken to first respond to a case, and the time to resolve a case (that is, determine whether the advertisement is appropriate, and if not, remove it from the public domain).” It includes a range of numbers of days from complaint received to case finalised that are interpreted as measures of efficiency. For example, over 95% of cases are resolved within 56 days; 99.8% of cases are resolved within 84 days. The report acknowledges the importance of quick resolution of complaints but gives no parameters for what 'quick resolution' actually is. To imply that a two-to-three-month time-frame for case resolution benefits the public seems absurd when it means that Code-breaching ads can remain on display for months at a time with no penalty for the advertisers.
Self-regulation in action: Ads remain on display weeks after being found in breach of Code (This one spotted at a Perth shopping centre during Easter holidays 2019, a month after Ad Standards upheld complaints against it)
Ad Standards lacks power to remove ads
Ad Standards has no means of removing any ads from any place at any time. What difference does it really make how long it takes for Ad Standards to review and rule on a case when they can’t enforce a ruling? Ads are removed when advertisers decide to remove them.
There are instances in which Ad Standards can communicate with third-parties regarding breaches of Code, but in such cases, the removal of an ad from the public realm is only possible where regulations give the third-party power to remove it. This, of course, is an argument in favour of government regulatory measures – not self-regulation.
Regulation achieves what self-regulation cannot
At the time of the publication of Deloitte’s award-winning report Ad Standards had upheld complaints against 60 separate Wicked Campers slogans for breaching the AANA Code of Ethics, with complaints dating back to 2008. Ad Standards’ self-regulated model was powerless to procure compliance from Wicked Campers and essentially, for more than a decade, it facilitated the dissemination of rape, murder and torture messages in the public realm.
Now, after a decade of community-campaigner-driven petitions, lobbying, working with MPs, rounding up supporters, engaging media and exposing Wicked Campers there is at last a nation-wide agreement on a regulated approach that will stop Wicked Campers’ serially abusive marketing tactics. This victory is a testament to community-driven campaigning. It is also a blow for self-regulation, demonstrating as it does the failure of the existing system to bring repeat offenders into line. Despite this, Ad Standards took to social media to commend itself on the outcome!
It is unethical and abusive to hold community members to a system that relies on invitations to advertisers to comply with the community standard, when advertisers have neither the goodwill nor inclination to accept. A new system is needed to procure compliance from délinquants en série like Wicked Campers and Honey Birdette. When recalcitrant advertisers finally feel the heat of enforced penalties, communities will at last start to see their standards upheld.
Image: Wicked Campers' rape and murder slogans facilitated by a self-regulated system for ten years
Rigorous research or marketing ploy?
Evidence shows that the current self-regulated complaints handling system not only fails to serve the public, it actually harms them. Deloitte’s report reads like Ad Standards marketing spin. Rigorous research into the self-regulatory system would have paid greater attention to its blatant shortcomings and opened the door to addressing these. It would have considered the real impact these failings have on the community and recommended measures to stop repeat offenders. Instead, it is business as usual for the recalcitrants as the system works in their favour, and against the well-being of the rest of us.
Following a decade campaigning against Wicked Camper vans for their sexist, degrading and abusive slogans - some even making jokes of rape, torture and murder - Collective Shout can announce victory.
After the long campaign against the vans for slogans such as “The difference between marmalade and jam is you can’t marmalade your cock down your girlfriend’s throat”, our perseverance has paid off, with state transport ministers signing an agreement to de-register vans carrying slogans like this.
A history of our activism against Wicked Campers, included petitions, persuading Lonely Planet to dump endorsement of the company, a successful collaboration with Wollombi Music Festival to ban entry of all Wicked vans and ongoing lobbying of MPs. (A more detailed history can be found here).
Queensland, Tasmania and the ACT enacted legislation to de-register Wicked Camper vans where Ad Standards had upheld complaints against them. NT went even further, with a decision to de-register vans unconditional on any Ad Standards determination. While these moves were welcome, Collective Shout pointed out that given the vans routinely crossed borders, uniform legislation was needed across the country.
Now, under the new plan agreed on at a national meeting of transport ministers, Wicked Campers with offensive slogans will be banned from registration in all states and territories. Each state has agreed to deregister vans that do not remove offensive slogans following a complaint, and to ensure that the van cannot be re-registered in another jurisdiction.
Movement Director Melinda Tankard Reist said the decade-long campaign was necessary due to a failed system of advertising self-regulation. “Ad Standards has no authority to enforce its rulings, and there are no penalties for non-compliance. Wicked Campers repeatedly and defiantly breached the advertising code of ethics with no consequences – more than 80 times since 2010” Ms Tankard Reist said.
The company was fuelling a culture in which violence against women thrived. Unaddressed, Wicked Campers’ messages served to undermine efforts to eradicating violence against women.
“At a time when governments are finally acknowledging the links between sexist attitudes and harmful behaviours, (see Women’s Health Victoria ‘Advertising (in)equality, 2018), funding anti-violence, respectful relationships and consent programs, it seemed remarkable that they could allow Wicked’s mobile misogyny to go unrestrained for so long,” Ms Tankard Reist said.
“We welcome this move. But it’s not the end. We need to see stronger regulation applied to other recalcitrant companies which refuse to abide by the Australian Association of National Advertisers Code of Ethics and which continue to put their vested interests above the wellbeing of the community.”
After a decade of Collective Shout campaigning against Wicked Campers sexist and degrading slogans and imagery, we are excited to announce our calls for uniform legislation across the country to deregister offending Wicked vehicles have been heard. Wicked Campers with offensive slogans will be banned from registration in all states and territories under a new plan signed off on at a national meeting of transport ministers.
According to The Advertiser, each state agreed to deregister vans that did not remove offensive slogans following a complaint, and to ensure the van could not be re-registered in another jurisdiction. This national approach would ensure this problem would be solved once and for all.
Katrine Hildyard, Labor’s shadow spokeswoman for the Status of Women said in a statement:
“together with women’s advocacy organisations including Collective Shout and the YWCA, domestic violence services and a range of other groups, we have been campaigning for a long time (for) the Marshall Liberal Government to pass our legislation to rid our roads of Wicked Camper Vans which promote violence against women. They have to date refused to do so.
“Whilst their actions are long overdue, I am glad to hear that Stephan Knoll has finally listened and is beginning to understand how wrong it is to use language which disrespects women and promotes violence against women.”
Thank you for standing with us and speaking out. We couldn't have done it without you!
Victoria must legislate to enforce weak ad industry self-regulationRead more
Music media platforms have written about our campaign calling on Australian music festivals to ban Wicked Campers. Read the coverage below:
Splendour In The Grass & Other Festivals Called On To Ban Wicked Campers, Music Feeds
Splendour In The Grass is among four Australian music festivals being called on to turf Wicked Campers (that’s the popular brand of campervans-for-hire that are often splashed with grossly misogynistic images and slogans) from future events.
Activist group Collective Shout has penned an open letter to the organisers of Splendour, Rainbow Serpent, Big Pineapple and Woodford Folk Festival, urging them to outlaw the offensive vans ASAP.
The organisation goes on to cite Wollombi Music festival organiser Adrian Buckley’s recent total Wicked Camper van ban as a shining example for the rest of the nation’s festival heads to follow:
“Some festivals around Australia have made the decision to ban individual Wicked Camper vans if they contain an offensive slogan. But we would urge festivals to go further and following the lead of Adrian Buckley in banning all Wicked Campers from your event. This would send a strong signal that you will not allow Wicked Campers to be represented in any way at your festival. Our thousands of supporters around the country would welcome this move.” Read the full article here.
Music Festivals Across Australia Called On To Ban Wicked Campers, The Music
Grassroots movement Collective Shout, which works against the objectification of women in media, advertising and pop culture, has issued an open letter to four festivals - Splendour, Rainbow Serpent, Woodford Folk Festival and Big Pineapple - urging them to introduce a complete ban of Wicked Campers.
It comes only months after director of NSW's Wollombi Music Festival, Adrian Buckley, announced Wicked Campers would not be welcome at September spectacle.
"Some festivals around Australia have made the decision to ban individual Wicked Camper vans if they contain an offensive slogan. But we would urge festivals to go further and following the lead of Adrian Buckley in banning all Wicked Campers from your event," Collective Shout's statement reads.
"This would send a strong signal that you will not allow Wicked Campers to be represented in any way at your festival. Our thousands of supporters around the country would welcome this move." Read the full article here.
We have been campaigning against Wicked Campers for almost a decade. The company is known for its sexist and misogynist slogans and imagery, including content advocating violence against women. Since 2008, Ad Standards have upheld complaints against more than 80 vans. So far, Tasmania, ACT and Queensland have passed legislation to de-register the vans where they don’t comply with an Ad Standards ruling against them. A Bill is also awaiting debate in the S.A Parliament.
Sexism and sexual harassment
Wicked Campers sexually objectifies and demeans women by treating women as existing for men’s sexual use- and that this is a hilarious joke. Countless slogans describe what would reasonably be considered sexual harassment, or reference pornographic sexual acts for women to perform on men.
Violence against women
Some slogans advocate violence against women, including rape and murder. It’s still a joke though, as long as we accept men raping and killing women as humorous.
64 Australian women were killed by men last year.
When journalist Lucy Clark wrote an article critical of the company, they sent this van down to where she lived:
Calling on music festivals to take action
Despite growing awareness and efforts to address the national epidemic of men’s violence against women, Wicked Campers slogans routinely demean and promote violence against women. Violence against women doesn’t just exist in a vacuum- it flourishes in a culture that is openly hostile to women, one in which sexist attitudes and the sexual objectification of women is rife. In order to prevent violence against women, we need a cultural shift.
This is why we are now calling on music festivals around the country- Splendour in the grass, Rainbow Serpent, Woodford and Big Pineapple- to use their platforms and influence to send a powerful message to young Australians that violence against women is unacceptable, and to ban all Wicked Campers from entry. It’s not enough to just ban individual offensive slogans at the gate, it’s time to take a strong stance and say that women matter. Wollombi Music Festival has already taken the lead in banning Wicked Campers (see an interview with festival head Adrian Buckley here).
Collective Shout Calls on all Australian Music Festivals to Ban Wicked Campers
Dear Australian Music Festivals,
Collective Shout is a grassroots campaigning movement against the objectification of women and the sexualisation of girls in media, advertising and popular culture. Since our formation a decade ago, we have engaged in an on-going campaign against the Australian camper van company Wicked Campers. You may be aware of our campaign.
Wicked Campers has attracted widespread criticism for its normalising of violence against women. The vehicles are notorious for their sexist and misogynist slogans and imagery, some advocating rape and even murder. The company has also been criticised for its homophobic and racist slogans. Images of these vehicles can be seen here.
Our campaign has been boosted by the passage of legislation in Queensland, Tasmania and the ACT, to de-register the vehicles where Ad Standards have upheld complaints against a particular slogan or image. We have also been very encouraged by the actions of Wollombi festival promoter Adrian Buckley who announced recently that Wicked Campers would be banned from the festival. Mr Buckley said that Wollombi’s values of inclusivity, diversity and creating a positive environment where people could feel both “comfortable and embraced”, were not represented by Wicked Campers, and concluded that an outright ban was the most effective way to send a message to the wider community. You can find Mr Buckley’s statement here.
Some festivals around Australia have made the decision to ban individual Wicked Camper vans if they contain an offensive slogan. But we would urge festivals to go further and following the lead of Adrian Buckley in banning all Wicked Campers from your event. This would send a strong signal that you will not allow Wicked Campers to be represented in any way at your festival. Our thousands of supporters around the country would welcome this move.
Thank you for your consideration, and we look forward to your response.
Collective Shout is officially calling on four main festivals to join Wollombi and ban Wicked Camper vans from all future events:
This Wicked Campervan was spotted in Brisbane last week with Victorian licence plates:
(pic: Boycott Wicked Campers Facebook)
Under existing laws, there is nothing to prevent this. Even when Ad Standards upholds complaints- as it has against Wicked Campers more than eighty times - they have no authority to enforce rulings, and there are no penalties for repeat offenders.
Collective Shout is calling for uniform laws across the country to deregister Wicked Campers if it does not abide Ad Standards rulings. Tasmania, ACT and Queensland have already passed these laws, but we still need MPs to enact similar legislation in Western Australia, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, where a private members bill by MP Katrine Hilydard has received overwhelming support.
Just last month, the federal Minister for Women Kelly O’Dwyer called for a national response against Wicked Campers’ “sexist, misogynist and offensive slogans”, writing to state and territory ministers seeking their urgent support.
Also in March, festival promoter Adrian Buckley announced that Wicked Campers would be banned from Wollombi music festival. We welcomed this news, and are calling on other music festivals to do the same.
Earlier this year news broke that festival promoter Adrian Buckley had made the executive decision to ban Wicked Camper vans from all future Wollombi music festival events.
Adrian spoke to Collective Shout co founder Melinda Tankard Reist and explained that Wicked Campers does not represent any of their festival values. They wanted to send a strong message, not only to Wicked Campers, but also to the wider community and decided to ban the vans outright.
In the past Wollombi music festival had encouraged people to not bring the offensive vans into the festival but decided as of this year they needed to go one step further and ban them altogether.
Adrian's hope is that all festivals would ban Wicked Campers as a business until they change their ways.
Collective Shout is officially calling on four main festivals to join Wollombi and ban Wicked Camper vans from all future events: