Calls to ban a government advertisement accused of “ridiculing” vegans have been dismissed by the Advertising Standard Board.
The ad that sparked concern was created by Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure (DPTI) in South Australia, promoting the government’s custom registration plate service, EzyPlates.
The billboard advertisement featured the line “vegan becomes bacon”, with the words vegan and bacon shown on two different registration plates.
Under the licence plates, a smaller line of text says, “Everyone has a story. Start yours at EzyReg.”
The campaign drew a significant number of complaints to the Advertising Standards Board (ASB), all claiming the department’s advertisement discriminated against or vilified vegans.
“I find the advertisement offensive as a vegan. In addition, the featured number plate ‘VEGAN’ currently belongs to an acquaintance of mine, who also finds this offensive,” said one complainant.
“This ad is extremely offensive to the vegan community. It is not good nor clever advertising and should be removed,” said another.
“The vegan community of Australia simply want to save animals from harm, torture and murder. To have a government business belittle us for being compassionate people is a low act. Please have it removed.”
In a response to complainants, the DPTI stated it believes the advertisement does not discriminate against vegans or “those who choose to follow a vegan lifestyle”.
“While this may not tell the story of all vegans, it is possible for a person to live a vegan lifestyle and then depart from it,” the DPTI said in a response.
“The intent of the advertisement is neither to promote ‘vegan’ or ‘bacon’ but to reveal a fictional individual’s story.”
Advertisement was humorous, not vilifying
The ASB agreed with the advertiser, though it did highlight a belief that vegans as a group would fall under the terms of section 2.1 of the Code of Ethics, which relates to discrimination and vilification against a number of groups in advertising. The board noted veganism is both an ideological choice and a choice for religious reasons.
Despite this, the ASB concluded the advertisement was intended to be humorous and was not in any way vilifying.
“In the Board’s view, the example of ‘Vegan becomes Bacon’ in this campaign is not an aggressive or vilifying reference to those who make this choice and does not amount to a depiction that discriminates against a person or section of the community,” the board said in its response.
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The complaints were dismissed, but DPTI modified the advertisement anyway, changing the billboard to instead reference “alternate concepts” to avoid further offense.
Controversy in ads a “grey area”
CP Communications founder Catriona Pollard told SmartCompany the DPTI’s advertisement toed the “grey area” of controversial advertising.
“These ads do try to play on controversy, and sometimes controversy works and sometimes it doesn’t, and we see this time and time again,” she says.
“In this case, because the commentary the ad made was not malicious or derogatory, the complaints were dismissed.”
Pollard believes controversy in advertising can go two ways, and as the DPTI’s advertisement was not inciting an action, the ASB gave it a pass.
“It was just humorous commentary on an individual’s food and lifestyle choices,” she says.
For advertisers wanting to court controversy in their ads, Pollard advises checking out prior decisions from the ASB and basing decisions on that.
“Look at what other ads have been dismissed or taken down, and see what the ASB will or won’t allow. This is essential, as having your ad pulled down can be such a waste of money, and damage your brand’s reputation,” she says.
“Advertisers don’t even need to use controversy to have an effective ad, it’s kind of lazy. Using humour tends to be much more effective.”