Chapter 5 - Advertising
Advertising standards in Australia are governed by a system of industry
self-regulation that is funded by a voluntary levy paid by advertisers. The
Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB) submission states that the self-regulation
system of advertising standards in Australia:
...recognises that advertisers share a common interest in
promoting consumer confidence and respect for general standards of advertising.
The system was established in 1998 by the Australian Association of
National Advertisers (AANA) the industry body representing some 85 per cent of
Australian advertisers. The AANA established the ASB as an independent
authority to set and administer standards and to hear complaints with regard to
Advertising is regulated through a voluntary system of compliance with
industry codes that establish the relevant standards for various types of media
and is given effect through determinations on public complaints by the
Advertising Standards Board (the board). The board is administered by the ASB.
The ASB submission states that it was established for the purposes of:
- establishing and monitoring a self-regulatory system to regulate
advertising standards in Australia;
- promoting confidence in, and respect for, the general standards of
advertising on the part of the community and the legislators;
- explaining the role of advertising in a free enterprise system;
- running other regulatory systems as contracted from time to time.
The ASB system is a broad one insofar as it effectively applies to all
product and service advertising regardless of medium and including promotional
activities. However, it does not cover program promotions or particular
advertising for broadcasters.
The board considers complaints about all advertising in Australia.
At the Melbourne hearing of the inquiry, Ms Alison Abernethy, Chief Executive
Officer, ASB, advised that the system administered by the ASB is premised on
the 'universality' of its application to 'all advertising' and support by
'advertisers, [advertising] agencies and the media'.
The ASB code covering advertising and marketing to children contains a
broad definition of advertising that applies to all forms of media and
advertising, and also captures promotional activity:
Advertising or Marketing Communication means:
(a) matter which is published or broadcast using any Medium in
all of Australia or in a substantial section of Australia for payment or other
valuable consideration and which draws the attention of the public or a segment
of it to a product, service, person, organisation or line of conduct in a
manner calculated to promote or oppose directly or indirectly the product,
service, person, organisation or line of conduct; or
(b) any activity which is undertaken by or on behalf of an advertiser
or marketer for payment or other valuable consideration and which draws the
attention of the public or a segment of it to a product, service, person,
organisation or line of conduct in a manner calculated to promote or oppose
directly or indirectly the product, service, person, organisation or line of
The board considers complaints about material that constitutes an
'advertising or marketing communication' under one of the codes administered by
the ASB. The codes relevant to this inquiry are:
- section 2 of the AANA Code of Ethics (the Ethics Code); and
- the AANA Code for Advertising & Marketing Communications to
Children (the Children's Code).
Ms Abernethy advised that in practice the ASB '[looks] at all
advertising, whether the advertiser is...[an AANA] member or not'.
The board may still consider a matter that falls outside the code(s) if it is
unable to be referred to any other regulatory or self-regulatory body and is
the subject of a 'number of complaints'.
Complaints about sexualisation of children in advertising
The ASB submission states that complaints about the sexualisation of
children are dealt with according to:
- section 2.3 of the AANA Ethics Code, which relates to matters of
'sex, sexuality and nudity'; and
- the AANA Children's Code.
Section 2.3 of the Ethics Code provides that:
Advertising or Marketing Communications shall treat sex,
sexuality and nudity with sensitivity to the relevant audience and, where
appropriate, the relevant programme time zone.
Section 2.4 requires advertisements that are directed or have appeal to
children to comply with the Children's Code:
Advertisements which, having regard to the theme, visuals and
language used, are directed primarily to children aged 14 years or younger and
are for goods, services and facilities which are targeted toward and have
principal appeal to children, shall comply with the AANA’s [children's code]...
Since 18 April 2008, the revised Children's Code has applied. Unlike the
previous code for advertising to children, the new code makes specific
provision for complaints about the issue of sexualisation of children. The ASB
submission states that the new code:
- provides the board with a clearer mandate to uphold complaints
about advertisements which sexualise children;
- provides the public with a specific code provision against which
they can make complaints about advertisements that allegedly sexualise
- provides advertisers with the clear message that advertisements
which sexualise children are unacceptable.
The new provisions concerning sexualisation of children are contained in
section 2.4 of the Children's Code:
Advertising or Marketing Communications to Children:
- must not include sexual imagery in contravention of
Prevailing Community Standards;
- must not state or imply that Children are sexual beings and
that ownership or enjoyment of a Product will enhance their sexuality.
More generally, section 2.1 requires that:
Advertising or Marketing Communications to Children must not
contravene Prevailing Community Standards.
The committee considers the question of community standards
Given the recent introduction of the Children's Code, it is too early to
make any judgement concerning its effectiveness. It is to be hoped that it has
the effect of removing overtly sexualising images from advertising. However,
the committee cannot help but feel that some parts of the Children's Code lack
real substance and fail to address the broader issue of advertising that, while
not explicitly sexualising, promotes atypical or unrealistic stereotypes. For
example, sub-paragraphs 2.4(a) and (b) do not preclude advertising in magazines
specifically produced for and directed at girls which, almost without
exception, feature images of slim, glamorous young women—the type of images that
have been identified as contributing to problems of low self-esteem and eating
disorders in girls.
The committee recommends that, in 18 months, the Senate review the
effectiveness of the operation of the Australian Association of National
Advertisers' Code for Advertising and Marketing Communications to Children,
introduced in April 2008.
The advertising standards are voluntary and the ASB does not engage in
pre-vetting of advertising. Thus complaints to the ASB are both the earliest
and clearest indicator that an advertisement may have breached the code and an
opportunity to test the extent to which the code is being observed. In view of
this, the committee believes that the process of making complaints should be
simple, accessible and user-friendly.
Fragmentation and complexity of regulation
Many submissions, from both private submitters and organisations,
observed that the variety of regulatory systems in Australia has led to a
fragmentation of responsibility that makes it difficult and complex to lodge
complaints. It was felt that this leads to low numbers of complaints, meaning
that complaints do not adequately or accurately reflect and represent
prevailing community standards or concerns about the exposure of children to
potentially inappropriately or prematurely sexualising material.
Ms Julie Gale, Director, Kids Free 2B Kids, observed:
The general complaints I get from so many people are (1) people
feel powerless, so they do not bother, and (2) if they do bother they give up
fairly quickly. It is not an easy system. They do not know where or who or what
to complain to, so I do not believe that we have a true indication of
prevailing community standards because no-one has bothered to go out and ask,
Some submissions called for a one-stop shop or single body for the
administration of media codes and the hearing and determination of complaints.
Conversely, there was recognition by some critics of the current system that
reform and improvement of the self-regulatory model is the best strategy to
pursue. Appearing before the committee in a private capacity, Dr Lauren Rosewarne,
who made substantial criticisms about the performance of the ASB, observed:
There is no impetus in Australia, from my perspective, to
abandon self-regulation and move towards government regulation. This is not
done anywhere except in countries like Saudi Arabia.
Whilst the committee recognises the basic appeal of a single system of
regulation and complaint for all media and advertising, it is not convinced
that such an approach would deliver a cost-effective and better system. The
cost and complexity of establishing the broad administrative structures and
expertise that would be necessary for such a system would likely be
All the complaints systems have at their core a requirement to consider
community standards when addressing a complaint. It is preferable to have a
range of different bodies performing this task simply because it is an arrangement
likely to introduce a greater diversity of views into the process. A single
body would have to be limited in size to allow it to function efficiently, its
workload would be very large and it would, because of these factors, be more
dependent on a supporting secretariat to enable it to manage the demands made
In addition, apart from requirements of and efforts by broadcasters and
advertisers to promote the existence and working of standards and complaints
regimes, organisations such as Young Media Australia (YMA) offer services to
help complainants identify appropriate bodies and processes for the lodgement
However, the committee notes that television and radio broadcasters, as
the bodies that receive complaints about their content and programming in the
first instance, have a particular obligation to ensure complainants are not
frustrated by overly complex or difficult-to-access complaints systems. As the
committee heard in the recent inquiry into broadcasting regulation, broadcasters
and ACMA have an understanding that misdirected complaints will be forwarded to
the appropriate recipient.
There may be advantages in creating a single clearing-house for
complaints—a body with a post-box and email address to receive complaints about
all media and whose sole responsibility would be to transmit them to the
appropriate broadcaster/regulator. Such a body would be in addition to the
existing complaints administrations such as the ASB. This body would be widely
advertised and would remove the requirement for complainants to have a clear
understanding of the confusing and sometimes overlapping responsibilities of
the existing systems.
The committee endorses the current self-regulatory systems for the
maintenance of advertising and media standards in Australia as both
cost-effective and appropriate. However, the committee is sympathetic to the
views expressed in submissions that the system can be confusing because of the
need to approach different bodies according to medium or form of content about
which a complaint is to be made. The main areas of confusion are between
advertising, commercial television content and program promotions.
The commissioner recommends that the Advertising Standards Board and Free
TV Australia consider establishing a media and advertising complaints clearing
house whose functions would be restricted to:
- receiving complaints and forwarding them to the appropriate body
- advising complainants that their complaint had been forwarded to
a particular organisation; and
- giving complainants direct contact details and an outline of the
processes of the organisation the complaint had been forwarded to.
In its report on broadcasting regulation, the committee made a number of
recommendations and suggestions with regard to improving the operation of
complaints systems, particularly:
- that all broadcasters and ACMA should ensure that the homepage of
their websites have a clearly marked 'complaints' icon;
- that the complaints page be accessed by only one key-stroke or
mouse click; and
- that complaints should be received electronically and by email in
addition to written or faxed complaints.
Form of complaints
A number of submitters felt that the complaints system is not accessible
enough and should be improved by allowing complaints to be lodged by telephone.
The committee does not support a system whereby the complaints process is
initiated merely on the basis of a telephone call. However, it does believe
that the ASB should consider establishing a 1800 number where the public can
receive advice, if necessary from a recorded message, on how to make a
The committee notes that the ASB website already carries a very visible
red 'Lodge a Complaint' button and that the process is reasonably simple.
However, the committee believes that wider public knowledge of the complaints
process is important. The committee notes from its submission that the ASB is
seeking to raise public awareness of its existence and its responsibilities.
The committee believes that the ASB should on a regular basis place
advertisements specifically publicising its complaints procedure in all media.
Given the amount of comment about billboard advertising and the difficulty of
regulating children's access to it, the ASB should also consider placing
details of how to access its complaints procedures on billboards.
Exceptions under complaints process
One element in the complexity of the complaints system is the number of
maters that are excluded from it. The following matters are not forwarded to
and considered by the board:
- a complaint that would involve determining questions of law or
truth and accuracy;
- a complaint that concerned trivial issues;
- a complaint that involved public advocacy issues;
- a complaint that concerned a communication that is local
- a complaint that concerned a communication that is the subject of
litigation or order of a court or government agency;
- a complaint that concerned unlawful business practices;
- a commercial that is complained about has been withdrawn or
- a complaint that concerns highly technical issues.
The ASB website seeks to deal with this by requiring complainants to
answer a short questionnaire which clarifies whether their complaint can be
accepted by the board. Attachment C to the ASB submission shows that, between
2004 and 2007, the proportion of complaints that were classed as 'outside
charter' and therefore did not proceed to a determination by the board ranged
from around 30 to over 50 per cent.
There is no suggestion that legitimate complaints are being weeded out
by this system. However, it would be useful to know whether the system weeds
out dual complaints, in which part of the complaint falls within the charter
and part falls outside; for example, a complaint might easily combine an issue
of content and an issue of accuracy or truth. The committee suggests that the
ASB analyse a representative sample of 'outside of charter' complaints and
determine whether some part of those complaints could be accepted. Such a study
might assist in refining the questionnaire which determines whether a complaint
can be accepted in the first place.
Effectiveness of regulation of advertising standards
The performance of the ASB complaints system was central to the
committee's consideration of how effectively advertising is regulated in Australia.
The following areas and factors were relevant or raised by submitters
concerning the effectiveness of the ASB's management of complaints about
premature sexualisation of children in advertising. The committee has looked at
complaints to the ASB generally and notes that there are very few complaints
about advertising directed to children. Those that there are usually relate to
matters other than sexualisation—product or consumer safety, for example.
It may be that the combination of the debate over the Australia
Institute's Corporate paedophilia report and the development of the
Children's Code has resulted in a tightening of standards in advertising
directed at children. Whatever the reason, concerns about sexualisation of
children in the media seem to focus on other areas.
Complaints which may fall within the definition of inappropriate or
premature sexualisation more commonly relate to advertising targeted at adult
audiences that is easily accessible by children. The assumed impact on children
is usually a subset of a general complaint. For example, a number of complaints
about Advanced Medical Institute advertising make the point that the adult
complainant finds the material personally offensive and that it is
inappropriate for children.
Similarly, complaints about advertising for women's underwear and other
clothing often make a general point about unrealistic presentations of female
body shapes and objectification of women, and then add that such images make it
hard for girls to develop healthy attitudes to their body shapes or see
themselves as individuals free from a sexual stereotype. Some complaints also
mention the advertisement's impact in terms of shaping boys' attitudes towards
Complaints about sexualisation of children
Due to the absence of an explicit ground of complaint concerning
sexualisation of children prior to 18 April 2008, the ASB was unable to provide
the committee with the number of specific complaints received on the issue. It
advised that, in the past, such complaints have been considered under section
2.3 of the Ethics Code relating to sex, sexuality and nudity.
The ASB submission nevertheless reported that it had received 'very few
complaints relating to advertisements that could be described as sexualising
describing the number of complaints about this issue as 'negligible'.
An example of an upheld complaint about sexualisation of children was provided
in attachment G to the ASB submission.
The committee observes that the Children's Code prior to 18 April 2008 was clearly inadequate, lacking as it did an explicit ground of complaint
relating to sexualisation of children. The statistics provided in attachment C
to the ASB submission show that between 2005-07 numbers of complaints under the
Children's Code ranged from between 0.20 per cent and 2.95 per cent, while
those relating to the 'sex, sexuality and nudity' category were generally the
highest (comprising, for example, 37 per cent in 2007).
It therefore seems likely that more than a 'negligible number' of this
class of complaints involved, at least in part, concerns about the sexualising
effect of certain material on children. Whilst a search of the ASB's complaints
archives on the term 'sexualisation' shows only 10 complaints involving
sexualisation since 2003, it is clear that many other complaints relate to this
issue without using the term 'sexualisation'. For example, a search on the term
'children' returns 41 pages of complaints.
Among these can be found complaints that are based on grounds of sexualisation
of children as defined for the purposes of the inquiry. Complaint 73/99, for
example, clearly concerns the effects of sexually suggestive material on
children during a program and time likely to include children as the relevant
Furthermore, the committee notes that complaints concerning the
sexualisation of children appear under the category of 'Discrimination or
vilification' (section 2.1 of the Ethics Code). Complaint 130/08, for example,
clearly concerns the effects of sexual innuendo and sexual objectification of
women on children, particularly young girls, in respect to a billboard
advertisement to which children are obviously exposed.
As noted above, complaints are an important indicator of community
attitudes towards particular advertisements or classes of advert. Thus it is
important that there should be a clear indicator of the number of complaints
that relate in whole or in part to children.
The committee recommends that the Advertising Standards Board produce a
consolidated half-yearly list of all complaints, including those received by 'phone,
where the impact of an advertisement on children, however described, is a
factor in the complaint.
Board determinations and enforcement processes
The board is able to uphold or dismiss a complaint. The board may also
decline to consider a complaint if it believes that it is outside its
jurisdiction or is trivial. Board decisions are confirmed by vote requiring a
simple majority. In reaching a determination, the following factors are
- all relevant advertising and marketing communications submitted
by the advertiser or marketer;
- the advertiser or marketer’s response, if any;
- all relevant provisions of the codes; and
- any other relevant supporting materials, representations or
Advertisers or marketers are usually informed of a board determination
within 12-14 days. Where breach of a code is found, the advertiser or marketer
is asked to modify or discontinue the advertising or marketing communication
within five days. If there is a failure to comply with or respond to such a
request, the board will pursue the following options:
- refer the determination report to a government agency (where
- include the advertiser or marketer’s failure to respond in the
forward the case report to media proprietors; and
- post the case report on the ASB’s website.
Review of board determinations
Both complainants and advertisers or marketers can seek review of board
determinations on three possible grounds:
- that new information has become available;
that there is a substantial flaw in the board's decision; and
that there was a substantial flaw in the process by which the
decision was made.
Requests for review are considered by an independent reviewer, who must
make a recommendation to the board within 10 days as to whether a review should
A small proportion of complaints made are actually upheld. Excluding
complaints that are outside the board's jurisdiction and those that are
withdrawn, approximately 15 per cent of complaints were upheld in 2007;
although this figure was considerably higher than for the previous three years,
in which approximately five per cent were upheld.
The committee notes that, although there is an apparent lack of penalty
or powers to enforce board determinations, the industry's compliance with
instructions to modify or take down advertisements found to have breached the
codes is excellent. There has been only one instance of a product advertiser
refusing such an order, and in that case the offending advertisement was in any
case removed by action of the company that controlled the advertising space.
Given the high level of compliance with board determinations, the
committee sees little benefit in the board being granted greater enforcement or
penalty powers. This would of necessity require significantly higher levels of
legality and procedure. Such an approach would risk the introduction of
additional expense and delay to the system for little discernible benefit.
The ASB board
Function and composition
The ASB board plays the central role in the regulation of advertising in
Australia. Thus its appointment, membership and processes are of considerable
importance. The inquiry received a number of complaints that the qualifications
or interests of some board members reflect advertising and/or media industry
interests too closely, and that the board was thus subject to 'industry
capture'. It was felt that this may have arisen due to involvement of the
Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA) in the selection of board
There may have been some grounds for this concern in the early years of
the ASB's existence, when the board's original membership was appointed by the
AANA. However, the selection processes for appointments to the board described
below appear to guarantee a membership that is both independent and broadly
Operations of the board were also criticised:
[The board's]...problems include the voluntary nature of the
participation of advertising agencies, the board’s low profile, the lack of
pre-vetting of advertisements, the lack of media monitoring, the weak code of
ethics, the flawed complaints procedure, the flawed notion of community
standards, inappropriate board composition, regulatory capture, flawed funding
mechanisms, and the board’s inability to punish recalcitrant advertisers.
The ASB submission explains that the sole function of the board is 'to
decide complaints about advertisements by applying the relevant codes'.
The board has 16 members who, according to the ASB submission, represent:
...people from different walks of life with a diverse
cross-section of views and skills. It also represents a broad range of age
groups and is gender-balanced.
The ASB claims that board members are 'individually and collectively
clearly independent of the industry'.
Mr Collin Segelov, Executive Director, AANA, asserted that, despite the
AANA's role in establishing and corporate ownership of the ASB, it is 'managed
at arm’s length by its own administrative board and its own management'.
The committee heard that board members must disclose any personal
interests in a matter that is the subject of a complaint, and any conflict in
their duties of loyalty and confidentiality to the board that might arise from
other memberships or employment.
Members must withdraw from a determination or from their board duties where any
such interest or conflict arises.
The rules governing the appointment of the board were revised in 2006 to
'ensure...board membership continued to be representative of the broad
professional, cultural and community interests in Australian society'.
New members are appointed for a period of three years and appointments are
staggered to refresh the membership on a regular basis.
The ASB, which oversees the appointments process, seeks people who
'ideally have an interest in, and views on, advertising and community
standards', while not being advertising insiders or experts. Members are
intended to be broadly representative 'of the age, gender, cultural and
geographic make-up of the Australian community'.
The recruitment process for 2008 is managed by a recruitment agency and
involves extensive public advertising seeking expressions of interest in
becoming a board member. Applicants are required to submit a short response to
the selection criteria set out in the advertisement and are chosen by a panel
drawn from the ASB and the board. In selecting new members, the panel has
regard to the overall make-up of the board and must seek to maintain the
overall balance of its membership.
The ASB reserves the right to invite applications where it is considered
necessary in order to retain balance on the board. Membership of the board
'comprises individuals who do not represent industry, consumer or special
interest groups' and who have:
- ability to interpret codes;
- demonstrated involvement in the community;
- the ability to apply reason, commonsense and sensitivity when
assessing a wide variety of material; and
- demonstrated ability to work as part of a team.
The committee acknowledges that the recent reforms to board selection
procedures to ensure a regular turnover in membership and community
understanding, and to avoid any 'desensitising' of members, should ensure that
the board is both representative and independent.
Prevailing community standards
The concept of prevailing community standards (PCS) plays a critical
role in board determinations on complaints:
Advertising or Marketing Communications to Children must not
contravene Prevailing Community Standards.
The AANA Children's Code provides the following definition of PCS:
Prevailing Community Standards means the community
standards determined by the Advertising Standards Board as those prevailing at
the relevant time, and based on research carried out on behalf of the
Advertising Standards Board as it sees fit, in relation to Advertising or
Marketing Communications to Children.
The committee heard that PCS are not prescribed in a list or set of
rules that describe what these standards are, but are intended to be reflected
in the composition of the board. It is important to note that 'community
standards' are a reflection of what people actually do—the language they use,
the preferences they express by their actions, the television programs they
watch, the products they purchase, et cetera—and are not an expression of how
individuals or sections of the community might wish them to be.
The board's determinations on individual complaints are thus taken to be
a contemporaneous expression of these standards. The underlying logic of this
approach was explained by Ms Abernethy:
Community standards are always subject to change. I think to
qualify or quantify a community standard would be a very difficult task. Also,
different sectors of the community have different standards, so a prevailing
community standard is a holistic approach rather than a factional approach.
There is an element of confusion in this position—on the one hand
community standards cannot be quantified or qualified yet on the other they are
sufficiently clear to inform the board's decision making. Clearly more work
needs to be done on the questions of determining and applying community
The ASB advised the committee that a research project it undertook on
the question of community standards found that the board was in fact out of
step with the community in two areas, which included issues of 'sex, sexuality
and nudity'. The project demonstrated:
...that Board decisions generally reflect community standards on
the key provisions of the Ethics Code. However, the research also showed that
the community is more broadminded about politically incorrect statements when
used with humour, but were more conservative than the Board in their attitude
towards sex, sexuality and nudity. Board members have embraced the community
feedback and since the research was released at the end of 2007, Board members
have taken the results into account in their consideration of complaints under
The committee supports Dr Rosewarne's endorsement of the use of regular
research to inform the board's approach to making determinations:
I have suggested...the use of focus groups in order to gauge community
standards, which is something that is done overseas and has not been done
frequently in Australia.
The various regulatory bodies in Australia employ a common approach,
which recognises that community standards are constantly shifting and that, in
order to have regard to those standards in decision-making, regulatory
organisations must be engaged in constant monitoring, and must regularly test
their decisions against, those standards. In evidence from the Classification
Board some insight into the question of community standards was provided (see
In its recent report on broadcasting regulation, the committee
recommended that ACMA, in addition to its other research and testing of
community standards, develop and conduct an annual poll on community standards
with regard to the content of television and radio.
With greater uniformity in the various industry codes, such a poll could have
general relevance across content and advertising in all media, particularly by
exploring community attitudes to the issue of sexualisation of children.
The committee also took the view in that report that the business
realities of commercial television meant that TV channels would inevitably push
the limits of the codes in their pursuit of audience share and hence
advertising revenue. The same consideration holds true for the advertising
industry itself. The imperatives of getting attention in an ever more
competitive market leads advertisers and their agencies to push the boundaries
of what is acceptable.
There is some evidence that deliberately provoking public controversy in
this way is, in a small number of cases, part of the advertising strategy. If
an advertising campaign moves on to the news pages because the response to it
becomes a story in its own right then the campaign's impact is massively
Given these pressures, the committee believes that all regulators should be
acting as a brake on this tendency by interpreting their own guidelines and
community standards in a conservative way.
The committee recommends that the Advertising Standards Bureau consider
adopting a process of pre-vetting advertisements either (a) at the request of
the advertiser where they are concerned that the content of the material may be
pushing the boundaries of the codes or (b) where an advertiser or agency has
regularly produced advertising material that has been the subject of
The committee notes that the design/composition of the board in
seeking/appointing members without specific industry expertise is a model also
employed by, for example, the Classification Board. While the membership and
decisions of the board may be criticised and contested, the approach is one
that properly seeks to achieve a contemporaneous reflection of the diverse
views that comprise prevailing community standards. However, there was evidence
that demonstrated it is possible for the board to be out of step with those
The committee recommends that, to ensure that the Advertising Standards
Board is able to make determinations that are in keeping with prevailing
community standards, the Advertising Standards Bureau should develop a formal
schedule or process for community consultation, including the use of focus
groups, and research to act as a benchmark for board determinations.
Committee members raised with witnesses the question of seeking advice
from specialists in child development when considering complaints about
advertising directed at children. In general, the board does not seek expert
advice, which is in keeping with the concept of applying PCS. The committee has
also noted earlier in the report that research establishing clear causal
relationships between particular content and harm to children is lacking.
Billboard and radio advertising
Complainants in submissions frequently referred to the difficulty of
avoiding advertising considered inappropriate for children, particularly in the
case of billboards and, to a lesser extent, radio. Billboard advertising is,
necessarily, large, highly visible, designed to attract attention and placed
where it will be seen by large numbers of people. It is also distinct from
other forms of advertising in that it is, literally, 'in your face'. Magazines can
be left on the shelf, radio and television can be turned off, but billboards in
a heavily trafficked public area are very hard to avoid. Submitters to the
committee and complainants to the ASB were particularly incensed when
questionable billboard advertising was placed near schools.
As mentioned above, radio does not produce any programming for children
and thus does not have G or PG restricted time zones. Thus advertising with a
sexual or adult content may be heard at any time of the day. Complainants to
the ASB acknowledged that they could turn the radio off but clearly felt
'ambushed' by advertising which contained offensive language or adult themes
relating to men's sexual health (the most common complaint).
Billboard advertising as a source of children's exposure to sex-related
messages and concepts was consistently raised in submissions to the inquiry. It
might be argued that this type of exposure is not actually sexualisation of
children but falls more in the area of exposure to offensive and inappropriate
material. Nonetheless, it serves as an instructive case study.
Private submissions offered many examples of parents concerned by the
exposure of their children to sexual innuendo and material contained in
billboard advertisements. A particular aspect of concern was that, due to their
high visibility and location in public spaces, billboards are essentially
...children...are forced to digest
inappropriate messages simply on a trip to the local shops. One billboard
screams out in giant letters "Want Longer Lasting Sex" and another
depicts a 'soft' pornographic image regarding a drug for premature ejaculation.
Dr Rosewarne characterised the problem as the forcing of billboard
...a captive audience of public space users who have not chosen to
see these images and who are in fact completely unable to avoid exposure to
Dr Rosewarne explained:
...[people's] need to commute and our desire to participate in
public life means that we...are faced with highly sexualised images that we did
not solicit and which we are completely unable to avoid. We cannot turn the
page or change the channel and we cannot avoid seeing these images. I identify
this as a significant public policy concern.
Many parents felt that such advertising effectively removes their
ability to make and effect choices about their children's sexual awareness and
development. Ms Gale offered the following example:
As I was wandering around the community, I was seeing billboards
at the end of my own street which read ‘Sex for life’, ‘premature ejaculation
problems’, ‘erection problems’, and it was a problem for me that my young kids
were asking questions about male sexual dysfunction before I had even had the
opportunity to discuss their own naturally emerging sexuality with them...
Complaints to the inquiry about billboard advertisements centred on
those promoting the products and services of the Advanced Medical Institute (AMI),
a company that specialises in the treatment of male erectile dysfunction. AMI's
billboard advertisements are characterised by blunt references to sex and
erection problems, including the terms 'erectile dysfunction' and 'sex'.
Dr Christopher Fenton, Senior Doctor on Staff, AMI, justified the blunt
references used in AMI's advertisements as necessary to overcome both men's
general disinclination to seek professional assistance for health matters and
their particular reluctance to seek treatment for erectile dysfunction. He
I do not think a proper census has been done, but only 11 per
cent of sufferers seek medical help and that means 89 per cent do not...AMI
gets men to act because of its bold messages which men do respond to.
It should be noted that AMI's 'Corporate Adviser and major shareholder',
Mr Richard Doyle, acknowledged that, with regard to a particular AMI
I am not responsible for every ad that is done by the company. I
do not like that particular advertisement. I do not think it is an appropriate
advertisement. It is not one that is currently run, as far as I am aware, nor
is it one that I believe should be run in the future.
This suggests a degree of uncertainty in the company about
what is and is not appropriate or necessary.
In answer to a question on notice taken at the Sydney hearing, AMI
advised that the ASB received 211 complaints about AMI billboard advertisements
in the 18 months ending 16 May 2008.
An example of one such complaint is ASB complaint 20/07, which concerned the
advertisement mentioned in the quote reproduced at paragraph 5.83.
Representative comments on which the complaint was grounded include that the
'blatant sexual content is offensive and inappropriate' and that it is 'not
appropriate to plaster sex-related information on billboards, in front of our
In answer to these complaints, AMI submitted that to prevent the use of
the word 'sex' on such grounds amounted to a form of 'censorship...[that denies]
legitimate medical services to large numbers of men'.
He also pointed to the widespread use of the word in a forthcoming film title.
Complaint 20/07 was dismissed by the board of the ASB. The following
reasoning was provided as the basis of the determination:
The Board noted that the billboard did not contain any graphic
images and that the word 'sex' was itself not offensive. ...the size of the
billboard's lettering meant that the text of the advertisement would be more
visible and hence would be confronting to some people. ...the Board expressed its
view that this advertisement was at the 'higher end' of what might be
considered acceptable by the Australian community.
On balance however the Board held that the advertisement was not
insensitive and did not breach Section 2.3 of the [Ethics] Code [relating to
sex, sexuality and nudity].
The committee regards the ability of parents to make and effect
decisions about their children's sexual development as justifying the
application of stricter standards to billboard advertising in terms of language
and concepts related to sex, sexuality and nudity. The real inability of
parents to prevent the exposure of their children to billboard advertising
would be a legitimate justification for the ASB and outdoor media advertisers
and marketers treating this as a special case under the current system of
Because parents cannot physically control the exposure of their children
to billboard messages in the same way that they can, for example, with
advertising delivered by electronic media—such as television, radio or the
internet—billboards are clearly a form of unsolicited material. In cases such
as the AMI 'Want longer-lasting sex' billboard, where advertisements contain
material that is likely to be at the 'higher end' of PCS, the standards should
be interpreted to provide greater protection to children from exposure to
material inappropriate to their age or stage of development.
One possible solution that has been suggested is the 'classification' of
billboard sites so that sites likely to be viewed by children, particularly
those close to schools, would be classified as G and would only display
material that was wholly inoffensive. However, while superficially attractive,
this proposal seems unrealistic because the whole point of display advertising
is that it be positioned in a way that ensures it is seen by the maximum number
of people. Thus all billboards can be assumed to readily viewable by children.
The committee recommends that the Advertising Standards Board rigorously
apply standards for billboards and outdoor advertising to more closely reflect
community concern about the appropriateness of sexually explicit material and
the inability of parents to restrict exposure of children to such material.
Compliance with upheld complaints
As noted above, the consequences of a complaint being upheld is a request
to the advertiser or marketer to modify or discontinue the advertisement. The
ASB submission notes that there has been only one case of an advertiser
refusing to comply with such a request. Generally, given the costs involved in
producing, for example, a television advertising campaign, the prompt
compliance with ASB requests for advertisements to be removed suggests that
self-regulation is taken seriously by the industry.
Timeliness of complaints system
Many submitters felt that the board takes too long to process
complaints, which acts as a disincentive to potential complainants and
effectively frustrates meaningful outcomes where complaints are upheld.
The committee heard that the board meets monthly, although it is able to
convene where the secretariat considers that a matter must be urgently
addressed. The ASB has provided the committee with a breakdown of the time
taken to handle complaints that were upheld in 2007. In general, the time from
a first complaint to a board determination is three to six weeks.
The figures also suggest that, where there are a large number of
complaints, the matter is dealt with relatively quickly. For example, a motor
vehicle advertisement which attracted the highest number of complaints for the
year 2007 was dealt with in 16 days; and two advertisements for a fast food
franchise, which attracted the second and third highest numbers of complaints,
were dealt with in 18 and 14 days respectively. These figures compare
favourably with complaints resolution in other media.
The committee notes that advertisements continue to run while
determinations are made, and thus it would be desirable if the timeliness of
the system was further improved. The committee believes that the ASB should
consider more frequent meetings of the board or arrangements for making
determinations or convening remotely, particularly where the volume of
complaints indicates a high level of community concern.
Classification of television advertising
Advertising on television is subject to the system of classification
prescribed by the Commercial Code, which is based on the Office of Film and
Literature Classification guidelines for its general categories: G, PG, M and
MA15+. The Free TV Australia submission advises that:
All advertisements on commercial free to air television are
classified and cleared by Commercials Advice...The advertisements are checked for
compliance with a range of state and federal legislation and then classified
under the Code of Practice. A placement code is assigned to each advertisement
and this advises the broadcasters of the times of the day the advertisement can
For a description and discussion of the classification system see
The following issues, not covered by a particular industry code or complaints
system, were raised with the committee:
Availability of certain merchandise in unrestricted stores
Ms Gale presented the committee with examples of merchandise with
graphic sexual themes that are available from particular novelty or gift
stores. These items included a blow-up doll and picture books describing
various sexual acts and positions. These stores also contain products
advertised for children. Such matters are clearly analogous to billboard
advertising since they can confront children (and adults) with inappropriate or
offensive material without warning. However, the committee understands that
such issues come under state laws in relation to, for example, minor summary
Similarly the placement of pornographic material in newsagents or DVD
rental shops, for example, is a matter for state regulation.
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