Gambling website Sportsbet has incurred the wrath of both the Advertising Standards Board (ASB) and hundreds of complainants after one of its advertisements was accused of promoting steroid use and glorifying Olympic drug cheats.
The ad is for the company’s new “juiced up” mobile phone application for Android phones, and features Canadian former Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson. Johnson was stripped of an Olympic Gold medal in 1988 after being found to have used performance-enhancing drugs.
The ad makes a number of references to performance enhancement, drug testing, unfair advantages, and “cutting corners”, and includes allusions to a number of other Olympic athletes caught up in doping scandals.
“Sportsbet’s new cutting edge feature-injected Android app puts the ‘roid’ in Android,” the ad says.
Sportsbet aired the advertisement on TV, online, and on social media, with each format generating complaints from viewers, who declared the advertisement “disgusting”, “inappropriate”, and “in very bad taste”.
“It glorifies steroid use in sport and sends a message to the younger audience that cheating in sport by using drugs in the long run is okay,” said one complainant.
“There is nothing socially or morally correct about the contents of this advert. It is the most offensive TV advert I have ever seen and therefore I feel the need to lodge a complaint which is the first time I’ve been compelled to do so.”
“Two things destroying sports; Drugs and Gambling. This ad does both – glorifying drugs and cheats in the sport. How can this be allowed during early afternoon or anytime of the day?” said another.
Communications Minister Mitch Fifield even told Mumbrella last month the advertisement was “dumb” and “ill-advised”.
Over 200 complaints were submitted to the Ad Standards Board about the advertisement. Of these complaints, Sportsbet said the “overwhelming majority” were “irrelevant” and called for the case to be dismissed.
The complaints were submitted to the ASB in relation to section 2.6 of the advertising Code of Ethics, which relates to unsafe behaviour around health and safety. The company said it believes the complaints do not apply to that section of the code, as the complaints were “based on the complainants’ own personal preferences, values or tastes”.
Sportsbet also told the ASB the ad was “clearly” a spoof and parody, saying “they are in no way intended to be – nor could a viewer reasonably consider them to be – a portrayal of a realistic situation”.
“Further, the advertisements mock and deride athletes who have taken performance enhancing drugs. In no way, do the advertisements glorify or promote the use of these substances,” the advertiser said.
“Although an attempt has been made to do this in a humorous way, it cannot be properly said that exposing drug cheats and their achievements to such mockery and derision could be said to be contrary to Prevailing Community Standards.”
The advertiser set out in a further 16 dot points rebuttals to arguments made by the hundreds of complainants, summarily dismissing them and saying they “lack foundation”.
However, the ASB upheld the complaints, saying the “overall tone of the advertisement makes light of the use of performance-enhancing drugs and of using performance enhancing drugs to cheat in sport”.
“In the Board’s view the use of Ben Johnson in conjunction with a humorous message about drug use conveys a message that there is not a negative side to drug use and cheating and could be seen as a suggestion that there are benefits to gain from cheating or from behaviour that will enhance your performance,” the ASB said.
“The Board also considered that, despite the parody, there is little consequence depicted for these actions as the athletes are portrayed in a positive way, rather than showing a negative side to the choices they made in their sporting careers.”
Sportsbet was subsequently directed to take down the ad, and it has since been taken off air.
Advertisers warned “controversy for controversy’s sake” won’t fly
Advertising expert and academic at Melbourne University Lauren Rosewarne told SmartCompany this morning an advertisement like this one was unlikely to escape a complaints process unscathed.
“An ad for gambling that references drug cheats and substance abuse was always going to be a problem. It was inevitable that it would become one of the ASB’s most complained about ads,” she says.
However, Rosewarne believes that Sportsbet’s target demographic was unlikely to complain to the ASB over the company’s advertisements, who likely “frame controversial advertising ad irreverent”.
“A company like Sportsbet therefore, won’t always suffer from such a ruling; on the contrary, they may benefit from a little extra press and the opportunity to look a little renegade to their market,” she says.
For brands that might dabble in close-to-the-edge advertising, Rosewarne warns that “controversy for controversy’s sake” won’t fly, with advertisers needing to be smart with their tactics.
“If an advertiser’s controversial ad manages to entertain their base and only offends people who would never ever be a customer anyway, such campaigns can work,” she says.
“Equally, under a system of self-regulation, given that there is no penalty for using such tactics, there’s not many disincentives for an advertisement to not roll the dice and try something a little outrageous in the crowded advertising marketplace.”
SmartCompany contacted Sportsbet but did not receive a response prior to publication.