AANA Code of Ethics updates targeting sexism and stereotypes launch today

The updates to the Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA) Code of Ethics and Practice note come into effect today, with the industry facing stricter regulations around the depiction of harmful gender stereotypes, body parts not relevant to products being advertised, and overtly sexual images.

The changes were revealed in September last year following a year-long review. The AANA received 160 submissions from members of the public on what they thought was acceptable to appear in advertising, which, together with research from Ipsos, found that Australians were largely concerned with the sexual appeal, nudity and violence in advertising which reinforced negative gender stereotyping.

The updated Code comes into effect today

The updated code of ethics, which is the the advertising industry’s self-regulatory code enforced by Ad Standards, will introduce into the objectives of the Code an obligation to avoid harm to consumers and society.

The focus on gender stereotypes and sexualised imagery comes after several years of the public and the advertising industry questioning the rulings of the Ad Standards Community Panel over complaints regarding the two issues. In previous years, the panel has dismissed complaints regarding Ultra Tune campaigns featuring Charlie Sheen and Pamela Anderson, both of which drew public ire over the depiction of women. Last year, complaints about an ad from KFC which depicted a woman in a low cut top checking her reflection in a car window without knowing young boys are inside were also dismissed, despite opinion that the ad was damaging to women and sexualised young boys.

Amongst the critics of the KFC ad was grassroots organisation against the objectification of women, Collective Shout, which labelled it archaic and harmful.

Speaking to Mumbrella, Collective Shout campaign manager, Caitlin Roper, said while the changes to the Code of Ethics represent positive change, the group still had reservations about how effective it would be, seeing as it is a voluntary code which struggles to enforce penalties on those which infringe upon it.

“The AANA code reflects an inconsistent and harmful approach to overtly sexualised images. According to the AANA, the changes to the Code of Ethics are in response to increasing community concern about the sexualisation of women in advertising and the harms to children from exposure to sexualised images,” Roper said.

“On the one hand, they say that overtly sexual images are not appropriate in outdoor advertising and shop front windows, where they will be in view of children, but go on to excuse these same overtly sexual images in full view of children as long as they are ‘relevant to the product’. This qualifying statement renders everything that comes before it meaningless. Essentially it means that ‘overtly sexual’ content, including women in sheer lingerie, with exposed breasts, buttocks and genitals, posed with BDSM paraphernalia, becomes appropriate children’s viewing as long as it is ‘relevant to the product’.

“But children are harmed by exposure to sexualised, sexually objectifying and pornified content regardless of whether this imagery is ‘relevant to the product’. The various negative impacts on children from sexualisation are well documented in the research, yet the updated AANA code continues to facilitate kids’ exposure to harmful sexualised material by justifying it in these cases.”

Roper also pointed towards the number of upheld cases against lingerie brand Honey Birdette, which catches attention for its provocative advertising in its store-fronts and often does not comply with the Community Panel’s rulings.

“If the code cannot be enforced, tweaking it is unlikely to accomplish very much. What will change for serial offenders like Honey Birdette, who continually flout the code and refuse to abide by Ad Standards rulings? Ad Standards has considered complaints against more than a hundred different Honey Birdette ads, upholding roughly half, but the sex store continues to display porn and BDSM themed ads in their shopfront windows with no repercussions,” she said.

A Honey Birdette poster banned by Ad Standards previously.

Honey Birdette will likely be particularly affected by the new rule which prohibits the use of overtly sexual images in outdoor advertising or shop front windows or where the image is not relevant to the product or service being advertised. In 2018, the brand attracted complaints for a storefront display which suggested “the model was available for sexual relations, or ‘riding’” and was situated in a shopping centre close to a cinema and children’s playground.

Mumbrella has contacted the brand for comment on the changes to the code.

Acknowledging the difficulty in defining overtly sexual imagery, the AANA published a guide on exactly how the Community Panel will preside over the complaints, and included examples of imagery that would and would not infringe upon the rule.

Imagery that is not classified as sexually explicit Source: AANA

Imagery that is classified sexually explicit Source: AANA

The panel will consider the poses of the models – whether their legs are parted, and the placement of their hand, the sheer quality of the fabrics of the products, the exposure of anatomy, addition of paraphernalia, and interaction between two or more models.

Anne Miles, the managing director of Suits & Sneakers and advocate for equality in advertising, was also critical of the operation of Ad Standards and the impact the code will actually have on the industry.

“These changes are a good step forward to begin the process of removing harmful stereotypes and improving ethics across the industry, but for me they fall very short in the way the self-regulation system operates,” Miles told Mumbrella.

“Regardless of these changes, there is actually no penalty for any business that breaches the code other than removing the work off air. With 36.5 days average timeframe to deal with a ruling in Australia this is a market advantage to those repeat offenders and no real consequence if found guilty. There is no easy link to the application of the disparate equality related laws in Australia either and I believe the self-regulation system actually prevents the law being upheld.”

Miles referenced the action the UK has taken to enable its advertising self-regulatory system to directly feed into upholding the law on stereotypes and domestic violence education.

Seeing it as an issue for the Governor General David Hurley and a Royal Commission, Miles said: “I would love to see the AANA self-manage before we get to a Royal Commission, but I don’t see a self-interested organisation taking this step willingly. I’m trusting that Her Majesty The Queen values the UK precedence and will agree to taking charge of this in Australia and fix this properly, including assessing the relevant laws.”


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