Watchdog rules against billboard for “promoting” tanning: How to advertise without offence

Watchdog rules against billboard for “promoting” tanning: How to advertise without offence


The advertising watchdog has upheld a complaint against a train station billboard that used the words “getting a sweet tan” because it says tanning is against the community’s standards when it comes to health and safety.

The billboard, which was located at Richmond Train Station in Melbourne, promoted Queensland’s AirTrain service with the line “worry about getting a sweet tan, not about getting to the Gold Coast”.

The words “sweet tan” were highlighted in orange text.

The Advertising Standards Board was told the billboard was both “thoughtless” and “dangerous”.

“As someone who developed a melanoma aged 25, and considering Australia has the highest incidence of melanoma in the world, I think this ad is thoughtless at best and dangerous at worst,” the person said.

“We experience the highest levels of UV radiation in the world as well as the highest rate of skin cancer in the world, plus our health system spends more money on the diagnosis and the treatment of skin cancer than any other cancer. Ads like this perpetuate this desire, and I was pretty disturbed to see an ad promoting tanning on my way to work this morning.”

In response, AirTrain said the billboard was not intended to promote excessive sun exposure.

“The headline copy does not explicitly direct the public to go out and get a tan or otherwise engage in excessive sun exposure,” AirTrain told the Ad Standards Board.

“It merely reflects a widely known understanding that tanning does occur in our society. Furthermore, some level of sun exposure is indeed required for a healthy lifestyle.”

But the advertising watchdog disagreed, ruling the billboard reinforced the wrong message about sun safety and tanning.

As a result, AirTrain Brisbane promised to remove all billboards and advertisements using the words “getting a sweet tan”.

A spokesperson for AirTrain Brisbane declined to comment further when contacted by SmartCompany, but pointed out the ad was never designed to encourage people to tan.

Communications specialist Grant Smith told SmartCompany it’s always a good idea for a business to double-check its advertising to see if it will catch the eye of the watchdog.

“It’s only another couple of minutes to see if anyone else has ever run afoul of the regulator on something similar to what you want to do,” Smith says.

“Unless you’re cultivating a bit of scandal, I’d recommend that all advertisers do undertake a bit of due diligence and stress-test your agency’s proposed copy. You don’t have to avoid risk at all costs, but it’s appropriate and sensible to manage it.”

Here are Smith’s top tips for managing risk in creative campaigns:

1. Ask yourself if you can say it differently.

Smith says in this particular case, AirTrain could have avoided being slapped on the wrist by the regulator if it had worded the ad slightly differently.

“Does a ‘sweet tan’ have better impact than ‘get some vitamin D’ with the target audience?” he asks.

“It could have been delivered in a cheeky yet sensible way.”


2. Know what you’re prepared to lose

“In this case, there are multiple treatments of the billboards,” Smith says.

“If this one has to come down, that may not be a huge lose in the grand scheme of the campaign.”


3. Get feedback from a diverse number of people

“It’s really easy to get caught up in your love for a great idea,” Smith says.

“But sometimes you need to listen to your critical friend and think about whether you really should take the idea to market.”


*This article was updated at 2.20pm to correctly state the Advertising Standards Board received one complaint in relation to the above billboard, not two



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