Ad Standards lenient on complaints in 2020 that were pre-COVID norms

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia, self-regulatory body Ad Standards encouraged advertisers to reconsider the content of advertisements to reflect the community standards of the time.

According to the organisation’s annual Review of Operations report, Ad Standards observed an early trend of consumers becoming sensitive to advertisements that showed behaviour contrary to health advice from the Australian Government about social distancing and hygiene to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

One of the first complaints lodged regarding COVID-19 regulations was about an ad for Bisolvon which depicted a woman coughing openly in a public park, which would have been a breach in advice to self-isolate while experiencing symptoms of the virus. Recognising that most ads at the time were made prior to the onset of the pandemic, Ad Standards community panel was pragmatic in ruling on complaints of that fashion, and provided advice to advertisers to align their advertisements with health current advice. Many advertisers chose to include a disclaimer ‘Filmed pre-COVID’ in their advertisements.

The only case that had its complaints upheld was an ad for Lotterywest which showed a man exiting a public toilet stall and hugging a stranger without washing his hands. The film was launched in 2019, but the complaint regarded an updated version that included a new voiceover stating “There’s Frank. Little does he know he’s about to be hugged by a stranger in the toilet. There he is, enter stranger. He’s won Oz Lotto. Forget the elbow taps, he’s gone all-in. Oz Lotto. Tuesday.” The reference to elbow taps was a nod to the gesture becoming the advised greeting as opposed to shaking hands. The ad was pulled after the community panel’s ruling.

Early in the pandemic a ‘consistently dismissed complaint’ letter was developed to send to complainants who raised pandemic-related issues, in cases where the ad content would not normally be in breach of community standards and did not mock the pandemic or suggest that public health measures were unimportant.

31 complaints lodged fell in this category.

Source: Ad Standards | CDC stands for Consistently Dismissed Complaint

In 2020, the number of complaints lodged with Ad Standards was down 33% to 3,514 complaints, continuing the downward trend on the year before. The organisation believes this is reflective of the financial situation of advertisers due to COVID-19 reducing advertising spend and the number of large campaigns launched.

In his statement, executive director Richard Bean, said: “The impact of the global pandemic can be seen in a reduction in complaints lodged with Ad Standards in 2020 in comparison to 2019, although a greater proportion gave rise to cases considered by the Community Panel.

“The MFA Industry Census for 2020 shows a significant reduction in advertising spend and placement resulting in fewer ads in the marketplace.

“Reduced ad spend also significantly affected levy collection and therefore our operating budget. When COVID-19 hit we took immediate action to prioritise the health and wellbeing of our people – and then moved quickly to reduce operating expenses and defer all non-essential expenditure. My thanks in particular to our general manager Brian Gordon for his work during that period.”

The top three categories complaints fell under were sex, sexuality and nudity; exploitative or degrading content; and discrimination or vilification on grounds such as race or gender. This marks a change from the previous year where the largest category was ‘Other’ and depictions of violence came in third behind sex, sexuality and nudity.

The key issues of community concern are consistent with the findings of the AANA, in its effort to update the Code of Ethics, that the community was largely concerned with issues of sexual appeal, nudity and violence in advertising which reinforced negative gender stereotyping.

Last year the two most complained about ads fell into this category. The first, which featured Pamela Anderson and Warrick Capper in a Baywatch-style film for Ultra Tune, received 315 complaints. The second was an ad for KFC featuring a young woman in a low-cut top checking her reflection in a car window without knowing young boys were watching her inside. The ad attracted 187 complaints. Both cases were dismissed.

The updated Code of Ethics came into effect on 1 February this year, with tighter regulations regarding those issues and a stricter practice note.


Of the complaints lodged, 65% of total complaints received were about matters covered by Ad Standards’ jurisdiction. More than 90% of complaints fell under the AANA Code of Ethics, with the remainder falling under other advertising codes such as the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries Motor Vehicle Code and the AANA Food and Beverage Marketing and Communications Code. Most complaints regarded the food and beverage industry, followed by automotive.

In 2020, 58.6% of complainants were female and the most prominent age demographic was 40 to 54 years olds, accounting for 32.2%. 30-39 year olds made up 19.3% of complainants, the same amount as those aged 55-65 years old.

Source: Ad Standards



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