The advertising watchdog has given a Melbourne-based hearing aid retailer a slap on the wrist following a public backlash over an advertisement that appeared online and on public transport.
The ad featured an image of a woman with a prawn behind her ear, with the words “hearing aids can be ugly”.
Social media users were quick to condemn the marketing campaign from Victorian Hearing, describing it as “disgraceful” and in poor taste.
The Advertising Standards Board has since reviewed the ad in three separate case reports after receiving numerous complaints from members of the public.
“As a mother of a deaf child, I am deeply offended by this advertising campaign,” one person wrote.
“It is sending a very negative message to anyone that uses hearing aids. I strongly believe it is damaging to children especially. These ads are on trams and various other places in public where children will see them. It is putting someone down for their disability. It is shameful.”
Another person complained that the ad mocked those living with a disability.
“The use of ugly to describe hearing aids is utterly offensive and the visual image of a prawn plays into stigmatisation of a group that may have no option to but to wear hearing aids,” they said.
“It is not okay to mock someone’s disability or encourage the general community to perpetuate the myth that hearing aids somehow make you ugly. Utterly disgraceful mocking of an invisible disability. Would you be allowed to write wheelchairs are ugly?”
In response to the Advertising Standard Board’s enquiries, Victorian Hearing said it had removed “all instances of the advertisement” from publication.
“The primary purpose of the advertisement was to encourage a section of the public with hearing loss to seek clinical advice and services,” Victorian Hearing said.
“The overall benefit to the community was to increase awareness of new products that improve the wellbeing and general life experience of those with hearing loss, notwithstanding that the advertisement may have struck a sensitivity [sic] some people.”
However, the advertising watchdog determined the use of the word “ugly” to describe hearing aids was likely to cause offense and distress those who wore the devices either by choice or necessity.
“The board noted the advertiser’s intent was to promote an alternative hearing aid product but considered that the overall message of the advertisement is vilifying of a person or section of the community on account of disability,” the board said in its case reports.
As a result, Victorian Hearing told the Advertising Standards Board it would not publish the advertisements again and all future publications will “focus on the positive benefits of the hearing devices” it supplies.
The business has also issued an apology on its website and Facebook page, saying it will consult with deafness organisations in future to ensure its marketing campaigns are respectful of the deaf community.
“Victorian Hearing is working with Deaf Children Australia, and will approach other deafness organisations, to enable us to consult on future advertising campaigns,” the business said in the statement.
“Our goal is to create positive imagery and messages in the future.”
Independent brand analyst Michel Hogan told SmartCompany businesses need to have a sense of the regulatory environment in which they’re working.
“It would make sense from the start to get around what that environment is,” she says.
“There’s now a fairly good trail from the regulator of the types of things they’re responding to. It’s not rocket science to figure out what is going to piss them off.”
Hogan says if your company is targeting a particular cohort, a good strategy is to consult with that group right from the outset to address any issues before they arise.
“Agencies and advertisers need to get smarter about how they portray and sell their products,” she says.
“Understand that the cheap money, if you will, of making fun or denigrating something else in order to make yours seem better is lazy. Don’t tell me why they suck, tell me why yours is good and make that work. I know that’s hard and you’ve got to think a bit harder about that, but you’re the one proposing the product.”
SmartCompany contacted Victorian Hearing but did not receive a response prior to publication.