Advertising

Sex, violence and swearing: Here are the top 10 most complained about ads of 2017 so far

Dominic Powell /

Sex, violence, and discrimination have made up the bulk of the complaints to the Advertising Standards Bureau in 2017 so far, with seven different advertisers taking out the top ten spots in the regulator’s list of most complained about ads since January.

Australia’s advertising watchdog has already processed over 2700 complaints this year, and the top ten offending advertisements garnered a whopping 946 of those complaints, or 35% of the total reports. Out of the ten, only one set of complaints of complaints against an ad was upheld.

A wide range of ads have been gone before the board this year, including Aldi shoppers dancing on trolleys,  one campaign that compared women’s breasts to cows udders,  and another accused of “ridiculing” vegans.

However, none of these managed to make the prestigious top ten list, with the number one most complained about ad coming from a company that has come before the board several times: Ultra Tune.

1. Ultra Tune – Unexpected Situation #5

Landing 357 complaints, complaints against Ultra Tune’s latest offering to the advertising world were dismissed by the board in February, after hundreds of complainants criticised the ad as “offensive”, “irresponsible”, and discriminatory.

The complaints were dismissed, with the watchdog saying the women’s “behaviour is clearly farcical” and the ad “did treat the issue of sex, sexuality and nudity with sensitivity”.

2. Sportsbet’s Ben Johnson ad


Copping 202 complaints, this ad drew criticism over its depiction of former Olympian Ben Johnson, who has been stripped of a medal for use of banned substances.

The ad standards board upheld the complaints, with concerns also being raised about its promotion of sports betting in this context, with the tagline of the ad saying the the app “puts the ‘roid’ in Android”.

“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 in June.

Experts also criticised the ad, with advertising guru and academic at the University of Melbourne Lauren Rosewarne canning it as featuring “controversy for controversy’s sake”.

“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 said.

3. AAMI – Ship Creek

An ad from insurance provider AAMI featuring a family discussing how they were “up ship creek” landed 84 complaints from viewers taking objection to language used in the ad, despite no explicit swear words being said.

“I am offended by the fact that innuendo is used to sell this product,” said one complainant.

“Watch the advertisement. The swearing is horrific,” said another.

The board did not agree, saying in the case that while “some members of the community may find a reference to the word ‘shit’ to be inappropriate”, noted the word is never actually said in the advertisement.

“The Board noted the repeated use of the phrase ‘Ship Creek’ and considered that while this does emphasise the reference to ‘shit creek’ in the Board’s view the overall tone is light-hearted and humorous and the language used is not inappropriate in the circumstances and does not amount to strong or obscene language,” it decided.

4. iSelect Partner Swap


This advertisement was referred to the board after complaints were lodged about vilification of age, gender, sexual preference, and ethnicity, with 72 complainants telling the ASB it was “inappropriate sexualised content”.

“I was offended by the suggestion is this ad that a woman should change her male partner for a female one thus promoting lesbianism in favour of a normal male/female relationship,” wrote one complainant.

“As a Scout Leader, I am deeply disturbed and offended by the image this creates. I can’t see how anyone could think showing a Scout aged-child seeks gratification by watching an adult
couple in their bed was appropriate use of the Scouting movement,” said another.

However, the board wasn’t having a bar of the viewers’ complaints, dismissing them and saying “the advertisement was light hearted and that the message being delivered about switching energy providers was evident in the advertisement”.

5. Ultra Tune Unexpected Situation #4


Featuring a cameo from Jean Claude Van Damme, this Ultra Tune ad received 65 complaints about its depiction of violence and discrimination of gender, but these were dismissed.

“It degrades women and the abuse of women and the fear women have of being attacked by making light of a dangerous and fearful situation,” said one complainant.

6. Be a BCFing expert

A catchy jingle from outdoor goods retailer BCF upset viewers because of its allusion to a certain swear word, but this was shot down by the board, calling the lyrics “jaunty”.

“In the Board’s view the fun and jovial nature of the jingle along with the link between the brand name and the jaunty lyrics amounts to an overall use of language which is not strong or obscene and is not inappropriate in the context of an advertisement that will be viewed by children,” it said.

7. Ultra Tune Unexpected Situation #5 (again, but this time on pay TV)

The pay-TV version got this ad another 35 complaints.

8. Bonds Comfytails Pearl G-String


This ad promoting a line of comfortable women’s underwear garnered 24 complaints, with viewers saying it was “disgusting” and “demeaning to women”. Complainants also took issue with the use of the phrase “pain in the arse”, but the board deduced it was a colloquial phrase, and therefore not an issue.

“In the Board’s view the overall tone is light-hearted and humorous and the language used is not inappropriate in the context of describing uncomfortable underwear.”

9. Department of Health and Human Services Tasmania

While government-funded ads don’t tend to garner complaints, this one 24, with viewers concerned about the depiction scenes of violence.

The campaign includes a scene of a distressed teen displaying antagonistic behaviour towards paramedics attempting to treat the teen’s friend who had been hurt.

The ad includes the tagline,  “I can’t fight for your mate’s life if I’m fighting for mine”.

“It is very frightening and disturbing for people of all ages, especially young children. There is swearing and abuse occurring and it is bad role modelling for children, teenagers and everyone,” said one complainant.

However, the board did not agree and dismissed the complaints.

10. Frucor Beverages – Sparkling OH

The final ad rounding out the list is a poster campaign from the manufacturer of flavoured spring water Sparkling OH, showing various pieces of fruit manipulated to look like women’s breasts. The poster includes the tagline, “not as guilty as it looks”.

“Manipulating a picture of lemons so they obviously look like a pair of women’s perky breasts and a side view of oranges made to look like the side view of a pair of breasts,” wrote one complainant.

“I want this company banned in australia [sic] and told to clean up their ads and stop this dirty display of scamming scummery [sic] smut.” wrote another.

Neither the ad nor the company were banned in any capacity, with the board finding “the use of fruit in a suggestive way was in this instance humorous, was relevant to the product being a fruit flavoured beverage and did treat the issue of sex, sexuality and nudity with sensitivity to the relevant audience”.

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Dominic Powell

Dominic is the former features and profiles editor at SmartCompany.

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