“Nobody is laughing”: Watchdog upholds complaints against ads for depicting domestic violence

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The Advertising Standards Board has upheld complaints against two advertisements that garnered complaints about depictions of domestic violence, prompting experts to warn advertisers that “nobody is laughing” at campaigns that reference domestic violence.

In two case decisions released this month, the Advertising Standards Board (ASB) upheld complaints against machinery hire company Tamar Hire and hearing aid business Clarity Hearing Solutions. Both cases were upheld under section 2.3 of the advertising industry Code of Ethics, which relates to depictions of domestic violence.

In the Tamar Hire radio advertisement, a woman is heard ringing the company to ask about equipment to clear her backyard, as her husband is too busy to do it. The muffled sounds of a man “gagged and struggling” are then heard, as he calls for help while the woman says she is getting rid of some rubbish.

In a complaint to the ASB, one listener said the ad was using “undertones of domestic violence” to sell the advertisement via humour.

“Domestic violence isn’t funny, and allowing it to be used for comic relief in advertising is not only irresponsible and dangerous, it minimises the issues those in domestic violence situations experience as humourous,” the complainant wrote.

In a response, Tamar Hire said the ad was “never intended” to come across as promoting or depicting domestic violence, and it was in the process of changing the ad in order to prevent any further offence.

“All we had intended was to advertise that in the male-dominated industry women do call to enquire as well as hire big/small pieces of machinery,” the advertiser wrote.

“We wanted to incorporate that our machines are female friendly. Never did it cross our minds that it could be offensive/violent.”

The second complaints case related to a TV campaign from Clarity Hearing Solutions, which features a woman attempting to open a jar in the kitchen. She calls to her husband, who does not hear her, and then she proceeds to begin to throw the jar towards her husband, before the frame freezes and details for Clarity Hearing appear.

“In the ad the woman is seen to threaten to throw a jar at a man (husband) who fails to hear her asking for help with unscrewing the lid of the jar. This illustrates domestic violence and is completely inappropriate and unnecessary,” a complainant wrote.

“We would not & should not accept a man threatening a woman in this way -neither should we accept a woman threatening a man in this way.”

Advertising expert and academic at Melbourne University Lauren Rosewarne agrees, telling SmartCompany the reversal of roles in a situation of domestic violence “isn’t funny or renegade”, and believes advertisers employing these tactics often do so as an “attention-getting device”.

“Advertisers might think that because women aren’t portrayed as victims that the audience will have a greater tolerance,” Rosewarne says.

“In 2017 however, nobody should be laughing at any kind of domestic violence.”

In its response to the ASB, Clarity Hearing Solutions said the complaint was “distressing”, and when vetting the ad internally “not one person raised an issue thinking that this in any way depicted domestic violence either as a depiction or as a suggestion”.

“Does the ad show domestic violence or the threat of domestic violence? Naturally we would argue no. The woman, while being seen to lift her hand to throw the jar, is not seen throwing the jar. There is no injury inflicted. Nor is the threat made to the man in the ad itself either,” the advertiser responded.

“We believe strongly that if anyone felt this ad contains a depiction of violence, that violence is at its very worst mild and would have little harmful impact on the viewer.”

Despite finding it “incredulous” that someone could have an issue with the advertisement, Clarity Hearing told the ASB it would do its “utmost” to remove any threats to the brand’s ethical standpoint.

Use of domestic violence in ads a “sad indictment” on industry

Rosewarne notes the main point of advertising is “to sell stuff” and unlike film or TV, where cases could potentially be made for the inclusion of domestic violence, advertising is “no place” for the sensitive issue.

“Companies are always looking for ways to get their ads noticed, and sometimes this involves attempts to appear cutting-edge and unique. There should be absolutely no role for using the tragic social problem of domestic violence as an attention-getting device,” Rosewarne says.

“The fact that in 2017 we still need to keep making the point that domestic violence isn’t funny is a sad indictment on the industry.”

In both cases, the ASB upheld the complaints and ordered the advertisements to be removed. For both, the board referred to the practise note which accompanies section 2.3 of the industry code, saying ads showing a “strong suggestion of menace presents violence in an unacceptable manner and breaches this section of the Code”.

For both cases, the ASB noted that while the messaging was perhaps intended to be a lighthearted or humorous take, instead the suggestion of the ads was “one that was menacing and threatening”.

“The Board noted the serious community concern relating to domestic violence and violence in general, and considered that the advertisement did not portray violence in a manner that was justifiable in the context of an equipment hire business and therefore did breach Section 2.3 of the Code,” the ASB said of Tamar Hire’s ad, which has since been removed.

The ASB issued a similar statement for the Clarity Hearing Solutions case.

A spokesperson for Clarity Hearing Solutions told SmartCompany the ad in question ceased airing on May 13 before the company was notified of the complaint to the ASB, and the business takes the complaint very seriously. The business has also posted the ad and its full response to the ASB on its website.

“Domestic violence is a big issue in Australia and we certainly did not intend in any way to make light of take advantage of it,” says the spokesperson.

“Some commentators have stated that we did it to get attention or to be renegade. We hope anyone who has seen the ad can tell that was not the intent. Depicting the frustration felt by the loved ones of people with hearing loss is difficult but important in allowing all parties to understand that hearing loss not only affects the person with the loss but also the people around them.

“In this instance the ASB feels we got it wrong and we will certainly abide by that decision. During the run of the ad it drove over 600 people to our landing page educating people about the warning signs of hearing loss.”

Tamar Hire did not provide additional comment when contacted by SmartCompany. 

*This article was updated at 10am on Friday, June 16, to include a response from Clarity Hearing Solutions. 

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