Opinion

Adland can thank Wicked Campers for getting the law involved in ad regulation

One advertiser who refused to bow to the the ad watchdog's rulings has prompted the law to get involved in ad regulation for the first time in more than two decades. Simon Canning asks if this is the beginning of the end of self-regulation?

When Australia’s system of advertising self-regulation was set up more nearly two decades ago, advertisers were adamant the Ad Standards Bureau (ASB) had to be completely autonomous and that it could not, and should not, be supported by legislation. Adland, they said, needed to be able to police itself.

But thanks to the behaviour of one car hire company popular with backpackers a key premise of the ASB has been shelved and advertisers using vehicles as a platform now face the very real threat of having their cars, trucks, vans and buses permanently parked.

The decision by the Queensland State Government to enact legislation that will allow it to deregister vehicles carrying marketing messages that have been banned by the ASB marks a significant shift for the watchdog – finally forced to rely the law, not self regulation, to enforce its rulings.

It is exactly what the system had been set up to avoid when then Australian Association of National Advertisers’ chairman (and founding chairman of the ASB) Robert Koltai helped launch the new watchdog after the collapse of the previous system.

Leading the AANA, Koltai was a passionate defender of freedom of commercial speech and urged the need for advertising self-regulation in the face of calls by critics of the industry for a government regulated system.

For the better part of its life the system worked (notwithstanding some significant tweaking along the way) and even in the face of advertisers who simply refused to accept its rulings, still managed to enforce its decisions with the aid of media owners.

Then along came Wicked Campers with its vans daubed in sex-fuelled, offensive messages.

The company owned its platform and had no interest in the ASB’s determinations, ultimately not even bothering to respond to complaints.

For the first time, a fundamental flaw in the system had been exposed. No one could be compelled to abide by the ASB’s decisions.

Frustrated for the first time, the ASB did the unthinkable and approached the Queensland government to see if a solution could be found.

With Wicked headquartered in Brisbane and many of its vans registered in Queensland, the ASB asked if its decisions could get the support of the government. At first legislators were hesitant but ultimately agreed to come on board.

Tasmania and the Northern Territory are believed to also be considering either their own legislation or laws which would not allow vans deregistered in Queensland to be registered elsewhere, stopping companies from jurisdiction hopping.

New South Wales remains a major gap, but the ASB is keeping up its lobbying efforts in a bid to create a national structure.

The result could mean other small or independent businesses using signage on their vehicles as a marketing strategy may see their fleets deregistered if they choose not to comply with ASB rulings.

Sources at the ASB say the the decision to seek legislative support to crack down on Wicked Campers is not the thin end of the wedge and the self regulation system remains robust, supported by media operators.

But critics of self regulation might see the ASB’s move as an opportunity to push for government regulation in areas such as food advertising to children, alcohol or gambling. And they can now cite the example where self-regulation failed.

Thin end of the wedge or a unique solution to a particularly recalcitrant company? Time will tell.

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