Watchdog bans Carlton and United Breweries ad for inciting “ridicule of people with red hair”

Caleb Triscari /

Source: Carlton United Breweries online video campaign.

A Carlton and United Breweries advertisement has been discontinued after the watchdog upheld complaints that it discriminated against red-haired people.

The campaign included television and internet promotions for rare ‘Yak Ale’ products that had been packaged in a ginger wrapper.

The advertisements urged viewers to “stop the gene spreading” by finding the rare “ginger” bottle designs “hiding” within six packs of beer, with the chance to trade these in for $500 cash prizes.

Complainants to the Advertising Standards Bureau about the promotion said the term “ginger gene” was used in a pejorative manner and that it is “offensive for the advertisement to be discriminating against those with red hair”.

One complainant said it was “very disturbing for my red haired son to have to view this”, given he had been seriously affected by bullying at school about his red hair, and the reference to eliminating “ginger” genetics was inappropriate.

One submission claimed the online advertisement breached Section 2.1 of the advertising code of ethics, which refers to discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, sexual preference and other personal characterisitics. The campaign was accused of breaching Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

In response to the complaints, the advertiser said the red hair characteristic does not fall within the definition of race, and if even it did, the ads were not intended to vilify red-haired people.

“The advertisements simply seek to associate the launch of the Rusty Yak Ginger Ale product with red heads in our community in an affectionate, light-hearted and humorous way by linking the hair colour with the ‘crisp and zingy Rusty Yak gingery flavour’ as stated in the advertisements,” Carlton and United Breweries said in the statement.

In considering the complaint, the Ad Standards Community Panel said red hair should be included within the ‘race’ definition, as Section 2.1 of the code defines race as including “colour, descent or ancestry, ethnicity, nationality…”.

“DNA can be considered to be related to ancestry and descent and therefore considered that in this context the reference to people with red hair falls within the definition of race and can be considered under Section 2.1 of the Code,” the panel said in its decision.

By including red hair within the definition of race, the panel ultimately determined the advertisement did cross the line by using the phrase “stop the spread of the gene” when referring to “ginger” products.

“The majority of the panel considered the suggestion that the genetic trait needed to be stopped was a negative one, and considered that the most reasonable interpretation of this line was that having red hair was undesirable,” the panel said.

“The majority of the panel considered that the inclusion of this line in the advertisement was vilifying of people with red hair as it was likely to incite ridicule of people with red hair.”

In response, Carlton and United Breweries said it disagreed with the finding but nevertheless pulled the advertisements from circulation.

The company did not respond to requests for further comment from SmartCompany prior to publication.

“Not all publicity is good publicity”

Janey Paton, founder of marketing agency Belles and Whistles, says despite the Australian history of making fun of red-haired people, advertisements like this one can cross the line.

“We’ve got the Aussie humour that we’re known for and that’s sometimes taken a step too far because it can be a bit derogatory at times,” she tells SmartCompany.

In the age of social media, viewers can directly contact the brands putting out content instead of going through advertising standards, which Paton says should be a lesson for SMEs in preparing for backlash.

“In this day and age with social media, more often than ever the public and consumers have a choice. They can take the criticism direct to the social media platforms [of brands],” she says.

“Most brands have a social media presence they need to expect that sort of backlash and advice for businesses is to have a sensible response for these consumers that are upset.”

However, Paton thinks that including red hair within the definition of race was unnecessary.

“I’d say including red head in the definition is extreme but if you’re going to go down that path you need to approach with caution and be conscious of your audience.”

Michelle Gamble, chief angel at Marketing Angels, understands where the panel was coming from when it included red hair within the definition of race because it’s a genetic quality, but “there’s no race of red heads”.

For businesses, Gamble says the lesson here is to not take any risks when publishing content based on the appearance of others.

“Don’t single people out because of their appearance. You’re dancing close to the edge in terms of what people are going to be offended by,” she says.

Watch the Youtube version of the ad below:

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Caleb Triscari

Caleb Triscari is a former SmartCompany sub-editor.