The advertising standards board has ordered the University of Sydney amend a billboard campaign after complaints were lodged suggesting the ad vilified certain racial groups by implying they were criminals.
The complaints centred on a billboard for the university’s ‘Unlearn’ campaign, which featured an image of the hands of young people with dark skin reaching through a fence, and the caption ‘Unlearn Criminal’ across the image, with the word ‘Criminal’ crossed out.
One complaint called the ad “offensive”, suggesting to the advertising standards board that it breached section 2.1 of the advertising code of ethics, because it discriminated against a group of individuals on the basis of race or ethnicity.
“This is offensive particularly given the over representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in our prison system. These women make up around 34 per cent of the female prison population but only 2 per cent of the adult female population,” one complainant wrote.
In response, the advertiser said the ad did not aim to portray any particular group of people, nor did it depict “a prison setting per se”.
Instead, the university said the campaign was part of its broader ‘Unlearn’ initiative, which “communicates the University’s new undergraduate education model, which aims to give students the critical thinking skills that allows them to question established belief”.
The image for the ad was sourced from the United Nations Refugee Agency and was intending to provoke viewers to think about portrayals of children in immigration detention, which is an area of focus for its academics the university said.
However, in considering whether the image and copy breached the code of ethics, the advertising standards board considered that the word “criminal” on the billboard was very prominent, and would likely be the first thing a viewer was drawn to when viewing the ad.
While acknowledging the university’s argument that the ad’s intention was to make people think about their assumptions and challenge these, the board decided that the intention of the ad was a complicated one.
“The Board considered that the meaning of the word ‘unlearn’ is ambiguous and that the concept of the campaign is quite complex,” the board reflected.
Overall, given the hands in the picture all appeared to be from a non-Caucasian background, the board decided the imagery did hold connotations that breached the code.
Despite the intentions of the advertiser to challenge its viewers, it found “the particular emphasis of the word ‘criminal’ words in connection with the choice of image was unlikely to give that impression,” according to the case decision.
Finding the ad could have made viewers link the word “criminal” with the hands pictured on the billboard, the board upheld the complaint.
The University of Sydney confirmed that the campaign period had ended and the ad had been taken down.
SmartCompany contacted the advertiser for comment but it had nothing further to add on the decision.