Independent review finds ad watchdog should reconsider banning university ‘Unlearn Criminal’ ad

The University of Sydney has issued a statement on the Advertising Standards Board decision to ban its ‘Unlearn Criminal’ ad following an independent review.

“The University of Sydney is disappointed the Advertising Standard Bureau has chosen to stand by their decision and uphold the complaint against Unlearn Criminal, one poster of eight in our Unlearn campaign, despite an independent review recommending they reconsider,” the university said.

Unlearn criminal

“We respectfully disagree with the decision. The interpretation of the advertisement as discriminatory is not at all aligned with the values of our staff, students or alumni, nor the intent of the campaign.”

Unlearn Criminal’ was initially banned by the ad watchdog in November last year for being “offensive” because it showed ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’ gripping a fence with the words written over the top.

The University of Sydney argued the ad was in fact more ambiguous than that: “The advertisement does not depict Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander women, nor does it depict a prison setting per se.”

The university argued the billboard uses the hands of children not women and the image used “does not allow the audience to identify the children depicted in the advertisement as belonging to any particular race or having any particular ethnicity”.

The board, however, found the combination of the dark skin and the prominence of the word ‘criminal’ would lead to the overall impression “that non Caucasian people are criminals”.

An independent reviewer, who examined the ruling, recommended the board consider new evidence provided by The University of Sydney in the form of new market research results.

The University said: “Our market research showed that there was a strong understanding of the ‘unlearn’ concept and how it applies to the University’s new undergraduate curriculum, and 67% of our target audience groups reported feeling more positive about the University as a result of seeing the campaign.”

Standing by its initial ruling and upholding the complaints, the board said “the depiction of brown skinned people behind a fence, in conjunction with the text ‘unlearn criminal’, is a depiction of people in a manner that is discriminatory or vilifying of people of that race”.


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