Opinion

How one small word will subtly alter Australia’s ad industry for the better

‎Outdoor Media Association CEO Charmaine Moldrich explains how the AANA's subtle shift from 'exploitative and degrading' to 'exploitative or degrading' is a small ripple with the potential for big waves.

The world changed profoundly last year. What started with the exposure of unacceptable behaviour perpetrated by one man in Hollywood led to the global #metoo movement, which amplified discussions about gender equality across the spectrum.

Having participated in this debate for most of my life, each new development – such as last fortnight’s announcement that F1 will say farewell to its Grid Girls – feels to me like we are past the tipping point, and the momentum is building for wide, sweeping changes.

Over the last decade, prompted by something of a wake-up call in the form of a Federal Parliamentary inquiry, we in the out of home (OOH) advertising industry have cleaned up our act.

Gone are the days of the lurid yellow ‘Longer Lasting Sex’ ads, and in their place, we run training programs, offer a pre-vetting service to members, and provide concept advice to creative agencies. All this to ensure the ads we post are appropriate and in line with the self-regulatory advertising codes.

Source: SMH, 2008

OMA members have become experts in understanding these codes and considering the particular impact of an OOH ad, given our signs’ high visibility, ability to broadcast 24/7 and prominence in public places.

And while I am incredibly proud of how far we’ve come, I am also aware that we have some way to go to convince both clients and creatives that gratuitous objectification in advertising doesn’t only demean women, it also demeans what we are selling, and in more and more cases, I suspect, the people the products are pitched at.

But one simple word in the Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA) Code of Ethics is about to change how we use ‘sexual appeal’ in our ads.

From March 1, Section 2.2 of the code will change from “advertising or Marketing Communications shall not employ sexual appeal in a manner which is exploitative and degrading of any individual or group of people” to “advertising or Marketing Communications shall not employ sexual appeal in a manner which is exploitative or degrading of any individual or group of people.”

This small but significant change will raise the bar higher for ads that use sex appeal. And while it may seem minor, it represents a major shift (one that we in the OOH industry welcome), as it will make it tougher for advertisers to use sex appeal in order to sell their wares.

So, what does it mean in practice?

Take for example the controversial Ultra Tune TVCs, which for the last two years have won the somewhat dubious moniker of Australia’s ‘most complained about ads’. Despite the volume of complaints (418 in 2016 and 359 in 2017), these ads were dismissed by the Advertising Standards Bureau.

This is because while they were found to be ‘exploitative’ because of unnecessary focus on the women’s bodies, they were not ‘degrading’ because the women appeared confident and proactive.

With the upcoming change to the AANA Code, these advertisements will now very likely be in breach because they are exploitative, they no longer have to be exploitative and degrading. Defining exploitative as ‘the depiction of people as objects or commodities’ or ‘focus on body parts where no direct relevance’ could mean an ad is not appropriate.

The old adage that sex sells has sat uncomfortably with a contemporary, inclusive, and fast-paced advertising industry for some time now. This change will make us all a bit more comfortable about how we transact business.

Some businesses will need to rethink their campaign strategy but may, in turn, find that they pick up new business along the way. It is no longer just a women’s issue, it is about a more enlightened and inclusive society that benefits us all.

Tipping points don’t happen overnight, they are caused by an explosion that has been bubbling under the surface for a long time. Rest assured, the earth won’t shift on its axis on March 1 because we will hold advertisers and creatives to this higher standard, but it will make a difference where it really counts – to our customers.

Charmaine Moldrich is CEO of the ‎Outdoor Media Association.

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