Is there any point to the Advertising Standards Bureau?

ASBWhile the industry body receives hundreds of complaints about ads, many are outrageous and few are actioned. In a feature that first appeared in EncoreMiranda Ward finds out whether there’s any point to the ASB.

In the last year a grand total of 3,640 complaints were made to the Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB) relating to more than 500 ads. The ASB’s board looked at 473 of these ads and only 68 were found to have breached its Code of Ethics.

With less than 100 ads breaching the Code in a year, the question of the ASB’s relevancy begs to be asked. Has the ASB become more of a burden to the industry than a requirement?

Part of the industry’s self-regulation system, the ASB deals with complaints on a daily basis. Some of them address violence, nudity and explicit language in advertising but many of the complaints border on the ridiculous. In the last month alone, an ad for preservative-free Devondale Long Life Milk featuring a girl glowing in the dark drew complaints and was subsequently banned by the watchdog because, according to the ASB, the phrase ‘preservatives have consequences’ “would be considered misleading by reasonable members of the community”.

A submission to the ASB reads: “We believe this advertisement is misleading to children because it seems to imply preservatives make you glow green. This would confuse children and is, in fact, incorrect.”

While the complaint may seem like an overreaction, it is indicative of the responses the ASB receives each day from the general public.

Earlier this year, an online ad for Clearasil that claimed clear skin needed a ‘kickass’ daily cleansing routine also caused offence. “We feel that if we don’t put in a complaint, then it will be just another form of ‘ass’ – that becomes ‘mainstream’ – acceptable in society,” one complaint read. Similarly Donut King’s ‘Amazeballs’ campaign drew the ire of some viewers. “If it was an appropriate ad, why wasn’t it shown in daytime viewing? Why was it on late at night? Why were there only two of these balls? In the company blog, they suggest they are balls but in a different blog they are likened to ‘balls’ – yes testicles,” a complaint read.

While for another viewer, this ad was more representative of female anatomy. “The donuts are clearly positioned to look like breasts. The jam is oozing out so it appears like nipples, which jam donuts do not usually do in my experience. This ad is offensive to me and I’m sure countless others.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority of these complaints were dismissed.


The ASB is made up of eight staff with 20 people on its board. Membership of the board is on a fixed term basis with new appointments staggered with the most recent appointments in 2011.

The organisation is industry-funded; advertisers pay a voluntary levy based on gross media expenditure. The levy has been set at 0.035 per cent – that’s just $3.50 per $10,000 of gross media expenditure. In layman’s terms, an ad campaign that costs $1m would pay a levy of $350 to the body. The ASB receives no government funding.

Complaints made to the ASB are examined by the board under sections of the Code of Ethics and other codes relating to food and beverages, advertising and marketing to children, and environmental claims as prescribed by the Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA). Sunita Gloster, AANA CEO, describes the AANA and the ASB as “two halves of the same coin”.

She says: “The AANA is responsible for code development and the Advertising Standards Board adjudicates complaints. While we are two halves of the same coin, we do operate independently because that’s what gives confidence around the adjudication process.”

Once a complaint is received by the ASB, it is assessed to determine if it will go to the board. If it does, the advertiser/marketer is notified and a response is requested. The complaint is then considered by the Board and the advertiser and complainant are advised of the determination. Anonymous complaints are not accepted. Fiona Jolly, ASB CEO, says: “Self-regulation of advertising is critical for the industry and it’s critical that there is an effective system for managing complaints and concern about advertising. Self-regulation is important because it prevents government bringing restrictive legislation in.”

“This would add considerable cost to industry and would certainly delay the ability of people getting campaigns on air or out quickly. The self-regulation system saves industry money, makes it easier for them to do business and gives them a more competitive and flexible environment in which to operate,” says Jolly. “It demonstrates to government that the industry actually cares about the community.”

While AANA’s Gloster says self-regulating is “fundamental to commercial freedom of speech”.

“Because what’s the alternative? The alternative is if we don’t self-regulate it’s likely the government would step in to ensure there’s some kind of safe-guard for community standards,” she says. “It’s like a footy game – you’re not always happy with the decisions the umpires make but no one would dispute the need for an independent umpire.”

Lorenzo Bresciani, managing director of DDB Melbourne, the agency behind the banned Devondale spot, is supportive of the system. He says: “So long as there are really clear guidelines and consistency in how those guidelines are interpreted, I definitely believe that self-regulation leads to better outcomes.”


While agencies have little choice other than to accept the board’s ruling, not all of them do it quietly.

In 2008, creative agency SMART responded to a ban against an ad they had produced for energy drink Mother with some tongue-in-cheek humour in their next spot. The original ad depicted a SWAT team smashing into a laboratory to assault the scientists responsible for the original taste of the energy drink. The ad was consequently banned by the ASB for “unacceptable violence” that was “not stylized or humorous but was gritty and realistic”. In response, SMART turned the concept into an animation which began with a stick figure marvelling at the ad’s previous incarnation getting banned.

The script for the ad read: “The last ad we created for Mother received a lot of complaints and it got banned. Not because of the new taste, which everybody now loves, but because of the amount of biffo. So we said wow, we didn’t realise people were so sensitive and we remade the ad using highly expendable stick-figures.”

While SMART poked fun at the role of the ASB, seemingly surprised by the complaints and the ruling, other creatives know complaints are coming long before they hear about them. In 2012 Johnson & Johnson’s Carefree ad drew a whopping 149 complaints making it the most complained about ad of the year.

Shane Sinnott, creative director at agency 303Lowe, the makers of the ad, knew using the word vagina, discussing ‘vaginal discharge’ and casting a naked female presenter would ruffle some feathers.

Sinnott says: “We were prepared, both the client and us, for a reaction.”

ASB’s Jolly says: “As soon as we saw the ad we expected it would receive complaints because the community is not used to hearing the word vagina in advertising.”

Despite the deluge of complaints, the board gave the daring advertisement a pass, ruling that while some people may be uncomfortable with the word vagina, “it is not a word which would be considered inappropriate in the context of the ad”.

For 303Lowe, the controversy surrounding the ad no doubt helped to spread its message. Sinnott says: “When you get a complaint it’s a sign that something is quite successful. You are not going to get 100 per cent of people to applaud you if you are standing for something.”

While complaints against the Carefree campaign aren’t that surprising, many complaints submitted to the ASB provide unintentional humour. Take the example of this complaint about an ad for RACQ Roadside Assistance. The ad depicts a woman whose car breaks down on the way to a date. Because she doesn’t have roadside assistance, she never gets to the date and instead ends up alone with only her cats as company.

The complaint reads: “I find this extremely distressing and offensive. It suggests that women who do not find a man or get married will live a spinster’s existence with cats, or somehow women who do not marry are just old ‘cat ladies’. It’s gender discrimination, outdated and plain false. Cat owners are not all single women and women can have fulfilling lives regardless of whether they marry. Having more than one cat does not make you crazy. I find this extremely offensive. Its not the 1950s and there is nothing wrong with CATS.”

ASB’s Jolly says that all submissions are taken seriously however some standard complaints are routinely dismissed by the board. She gives the example of the image of a woman cooking dinner. While this is a stereotypical role, unless the ad is deemed derogatory or demeaning the complaint will be immediately dismissed without further action.

“We have a system in place for the last two years where we won’t take that issue back to the board,” she says.

303Lowe’s Sinnott says: “The board is normally fair and reasonable. You have to have a standards board so that you keep people who have lesser morals in check. We have to have some boundaries. The board is good, the way they dealt with the complaints [for the Carefree campaign] was professional as always.”

DDB Melbourne’s Bresciani agrees.

He says: “For the industry it’s important to have quite clear guidelines about what requirements are so there’s certainty about what’s expected.”


But what if the ASB didn’t exist. Is there a better alternative?

One suggestion is to shift the responsibility of regulation to the government, an idea unpopular with many in the industry. AANA’s Gloster says: “There would be a negative impact as we’d lose the sense of being agile around the codes because we constantly review the codes. The ASB always evolves and it looks at every complaint in context not just in the literal letter of the law. A government regulator would be less flexible, there would be less agility around understanding the changing community standards and industry would lose.”

DDB Melbourne’s Bresciani says if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. He says: “What we don’t want is excessive regulation of advertising from a government standpoint, as long as the self regulatory system is working well, there’s no reason to change it.”

In an industry that’s continually trying to push boundaries, some form of regulation seems necessary. However there is a danger that the Board can become a mouthpiece for an overly-concerned and disproportionately-sensitive public. But without the ASB, government intervention would be inevitable and the industry must weigh up which is the lesser evil.

Perhaps the fact that most complaints submitted to the ASB are dismissed could be taken as a sign the industry is already playing by the rules, even if the public doesn’t necessarily agree.

Encore issue 35

This piece first appeared in EncoreDownload it now on iPad, iPhone and Android tablet devices.



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