Advertising

The top 10 most complained about ads from the past 20 years

Benjamin Savona /

Television advertising and brands go hand-in-hand, so it should be no surprise that the most complained about advertisements in Australia over the past 20 years have all appeared on television. 

The Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB) has been fielding complaints about advertising over these two decades, with ongoing concerns surrounding sexuality and nudity, violence and health and safety continuing to spark the ire of TV viewers.

But are we as a country now more likely to complain about advertising in the past? Of the 10 ads to feature in the ASB’s list of most complained about ads since 1998, two were produced this year.

Here the most complained about advertisements of the last 20 years.

1. Sportsbet — 792 complaints (2018)
Verdict: Upheld
The Australian betting company has always pushed the envelope with its advertising campaigns, but this ad shows a man naked from the waist up who appears to be ‘manscaping’. The ad is no longer available online, so you might have to use your imagination, but the Ad Standards case file described said it “depicts a naked man from the waist up, with his leg upon the bathroom counter using a razor to groom or ‘manscape'”. Some of the complaints filed to the ASB are as follows:
“Gambling ads on the whole appear to be sexist and disgusting but this takes offence to a whole new level”
“It’s gratuitous sex and unnecessary”

2. iSelect  715 complaints (2018)
Verdict: Upheld
The second of the 2018 commercials to shoot up the complaints list was produced by insurance company iSelect. The ad depicts an enraged woman aggressively hitting a piñata in front of a group of children.
Here are some of the complaints:
I object to the level of violence and aggression demonstrated by the woman. She had a murderous look on her face. The sound of the stick making contact with the rabbit is unsettling. Advertisement also implies that violence to animals is okay.”
“I cringed watching this advertisement. The children looked as horrified as I felt only to be given lollies. It was too violent.”

3. Ashley Madison — 643 complaints (2014)
Verdict: Dismissed
When you’re selling a product as risqué as systematic adultery, you’re bound to step on a few toes along the way. The ad in question depicts a number of men breaking into song, stating that they are ‘looking for someone other than my wife’. As some complainants said:
Advertising of the disgraceful act of cheating on your marriage partner is disgusting and should not be condoned on television or anywhere else for that matter.”
“I object to this advertisement promotes and sells adultery and fornication to married and unmarried men. I am also offended as I was watching TV with my husband at the time the advertisement was aired.”

4. UltraTune — 421 complaints (2017)
Verdict: Dismissed
UltraTune finds itself fourth on the list, and this is not its only appearance. This ad depicts two women putting out a car fire with a fire extinguisher and the ASB fielded complaints about objectification, exploitative material and discrimination:

Watching two of the best female athletes in the world and this sexist rubbish comes on. Really Ultra-Tune? Disgusting portrayal of women pandering to a supposed male sexual fantasy about dumb sexy women having a water fight?
“The women are presented as ‘bimbos’ — the ad focuses on their bodies. This is a sexist, demeaning ad — given the move within society to address the negative attitudes toward women, this ad is in very poor taste!”

5. UltraTune  419 complaints (2016)
Verdict: Dismissed
The car repair company has two in a row, and this second ad falls only two complaints short of its fourth-placed counterpart. This ad raised concerns about the two women from the previously mentioned ad declaring they are “into rubber”:
It’s virtually pornographic and is demeaning to women, especially in a society currently trying to address domestic violence against women. The ad is extraordinarily degrading.”
“The ad is extremely sexual, sexist, demeaning to women and not appropriate for prime time viewing.”

6. Meat and Livestock Australia — 376 complaints (2016)
Verdict: Dismissed
Popular SBS newsreader Lee Lin Chin was the face of this Australia Day campaign, which ruffled a large number of feathers. The ad depicts Chin organising “Operation Boomerang” to rescue Australians overseas so they can come home and eat lamb.
The use of the term ‘Operation Boomerang’ is culturaly inappropriate and offensive to indigenous Australians.”
“It’s a meat ad. Leave vegans out of it.”

7. Nandos — 359 complaints (2007)
Verdict: Dismissed
Fast-food restaurant Nandos’ 2007 ad campaign used sexuality offensively, according to the complaints made against it. The ad shows a woman pole dancing in a club in a G-string, and alludes to Nandos being an addiction. Plenty of viewers were unimpressed:
This advertisement is explicit. The representation of a woman in this environment is offensive and seeks only to objectify women further as sex symbols.”
“My 18 year old son is stunned and thought it was rather inappropriate.”

8. Youfoodz — 307 complaints (2017)
Verdict: Upheld
The food and beverage company had many complaints levelled against it, as a play on words did not resonate with viewers as intended. A young boy is shown describing a meal a “un-forkin-believable”. Almost all the complaints concerned a child using a word not fit for free-to-air advertising. The complaint was upheld, and the ad was amended with bleeps.
The language used by the child specifically using ‘fork’ and ‘forking’ as an obvious substitute for more obscene expletive. Definitely not appropriate for a child to use.”

9. Neds — 303 complaints (2017)
Verdict: Dismissed
This gambling ad shows a man excusing himself from a family dinner with his partner to take a phone call and use the app and placing bets. The complaints leveled against the ad reference the company apparently condoning and promoting problem gambling. 
Hiding gambling from your family was conveyed in a comedic manner. This is an issue as it normalises the behaviour for problem gamblers.”
“This add promotes deceiving family members to allow you to place bets.”

10. Stuart Alexander — 283 complaints (2006)
Verdict Dismissed
The Mentos ad shows a man’s nipples getting longer as he walks around town using them to do various tasks. Complaints levelled against the ad cited a portrayal of sex/sexuality/nudity within the advertisement:
It looked pornographic… The fact that this product is supposed to bring your nipples out is having a go at women.”
“I felt that the sexual message conveyed and the unhygienic act of using body parts to touch public property was highly inappropriate.”

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Benjamin Savona

Benjamin Savona is a journalist at SmartCompany.

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  • The ASB’s dismissal of the UltraTune and Nando’s complaints show it to be completely out of touch with contemporary community standards. Either their policies need updating or their personnel need replacing – probably both.

    • wormseye

      No – it’s you who are out of touch. Whatever “community” you may allude to, you can be pretty well nigh certain that it will have no standards.

      • Sadly, wormseye, you may have a point there! But I’d like to think the kind of dated, banal and offensive objectification of women exemplified in those ads is no longer considered acceptable by the majority of people. Women, and fathers of daughters, are definitely over it, so there’s a majority in those two groups alone.