The first ad officially complained about to the Advertising Standards Council was about orange juice.
It was 1974 and the complainant took issue with the use of the word “fresh” in television and print ads for Trufruit orange juice.
As the council – the precursor to the Advertising Standards Bureau – dealt mainly with complaints around misleading, untrue or unfair advertising at the time, it deliberated on whether the juice in the ad was indeed fresh. It wasn’t and so the complaint was upheld.
But speaking at an event to mark the 40th anniversary of the ASB in Canberra last night, ASB chief executive Fiona Jolly said it didn’t take long for members of the public to start complaining about issues of taste and decency throughout the 1970s.
Jolly showed the example of a television commercial for RC Cola in the 1970s, featuring a bikini-clad woman on the beach, with up close shots of her bottom and images of her removing her bikini top.
But at the time, Jolly said, “there were no provisions that addressed any of the problems you have seen in that ad”.
Between October 1976 and February 1978, 204 out of a total 715 complaints to the ASC related to taste and decency, but it wasn’t until 1986 that a provision to deal with taste and decency became part of the Advertising Code of Ethics.
Jolly gave an overview of the largely untold story of self-regulation in the Australian advertising industry and paid tribute to many of the individuals who have served on the ASB’s review board.
A number of those members were in the audience, including actor and author William McInnes, who is a member of the ASB review board and hosted the event.
“What we do is we look at advertisements and we decide, judge, come together and have a good ol’ chat about the codes that are set down and whether these ads have breached them,” McInnes told the room, while also reminiscing about the ads his family watched when he was a child.
“In a free society like Australia advertising is one of the greatest communications between people; it’s a marvelous time capsule.”
“When you put your hand up to go on a board like this, you’re asked to judge … and you say you are going to sit there on behalf of the community, it’s an awesome responsibility,” he said.
McInnes shared his favourite complaint so far, which was in response to an ad featuring a man sharing a bath with his dog.
“I’m a seventh generation Australian,” McInnes recalled the wording of the complaint.
“But my favourite phrase was: ‘This is very European’. It gets better, it gets better. ‘He’s bathing with a dog, they have no sense of hygiene. It’s demeaning to the man and animal and there is a hint of bestiality.”
Today, the ASB – which came into existence in 1996 – still receives a large volume of complaints relating to taste and decency concerns but as most don’t directly relate to particular sections of the code, they are considered under the ‘other’ category and often dismissed.
However, in the 1980s, it was cigarette advertising that took up most of the ASC’s time, said Jolly, including the well-known anti-smoking “sponge ad”.
Remake of the ‘sponge’ ad
“This was one of the ads that was complained about in 1983 and the reason it was complained about was on the basis of truth and accuracy. The complaints were dismissed. I assume it must have been a tobacco-related company that must have complained,” she said.
“Interestingly, we would still look at that ad now but on the basis that it was too graphic and upsetting to people.”
In 1987, 28% of all complaints from the public were about cigarettes. But this fell to less than 1% in 1990 when advertising featuring people smoking was banned and cigarettes could no longer be advertised in newspapers and magazines.
Jolly said it was around this time that complaints about truth in advertising subsided and the ASC began to see an increase in the number of complaints about sexism, discrimination and the portrayal of sex in advertising, like this commercial from Antz Pantz.
In its first year of the ASB’s operation in 1997, the section of the Advertising Code of Ethics that most complaints related to was Section 2.1, which relates to discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, nationality, sex, age, sexual preference, religion, disability or political belief.
In 1998, 30% of complaints related to the portrayal of people in advertising.
Between 1998 and 2004, sex, sexuality and nudity was consistently the third or fourth most complained about area and now it usually comes in at number one or two on the list. Curiously, Jolly said ads about female menstruation products are now among the most complained about.
Jolly said complaints about offensive language are also on the rise, highlighting this ad for Ingham’s chicken.
“That ad had quite a number of complaints, not really because they were offended by the language, but because they were horrified the language was being used by a child,” Jolly said.