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‘Stupidity breeds stupidity’ – but Ultra Tune ad complaints dismissed

The latest iteration of Ultra Tune’s controversial ‘Unexpected Situations’ campaign has escaped retribution from the Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB), despite numerous complaints and lengthy disagreements by the watchdog’s board members about its execution.

Complaints about Ultra Tune’s ‘Muffler Unexpected Situations’ largely related to the sexualisation of the the women who find themselves in trouble in the ad, and the gratuitous shots of their body parts as they battle to contain the fireball which erupted from their vehicle’s muffler problems.

Examples of complaints, which rolled in in relation to the brand’s television commercial, internet ad and social media campaign said the spot was “discriminatory and degrading”, promoted “blatant sexism and objectification” and had no place in 21st Century Australia.

“Watching two of the best female athletes in the world and this sexist rubbish comes on. Really Ultra Tune? Disgusting portrayal of women pandering to a supposed male sexual fantasy about dumb sexy women having a water fight?,” one complaint said.

“An advertisement such as this one should at least have some semblance of reality and not show images that would let people believe that being covered in the contents of a fire extinguisher is a remotely reasonable thing to happen. Stupidity breeds stupidity and showing scenes such as those depicted on this ad is very irresponsible.”

Others noted the needless sexual implications behind the ad.

“[The women] are represented as incapable and in need of rescue. The young man is depicted as ‘enthusiastic’ to assist – what follows is an explosion of liquid drenching the women suggesting/symbolising ejacutlated. The voiceover then suggests a similar double entendre.”

Another said the ad more closely represented a wet t-shirt competition than an ad.

Upon releasing the ‘Muffler Unexpected Situations’ ads earlier this year, Ultra Tune CEO Sean Buckley noted that while they were bound to attract complaints, the Board would be unable to ban the ads based on the watchdog’s code and the brand’s learnings from previous rulings.

“Do I expect it to get banned? No. I will take it all the way to the High Court if it does. I’ve spoken to my lawyers,” Buckley told Mumbrella back in January.

“Yes, it will attract complaints, but that’s not why I did it.”

He said complaints tend to only come from “social keyboard warriors” and middle-aged feminists “who are after equality” who missed the light-hearted intent of the ads.

He said the brand had learnt its lesson from a previous banning, however, and the women are now more pro-active and self-assured in these new ads.

Sean Buckley, Ultra Tune CEO

“The girls respond quickly to the flames. They get a bit wet, but that’s okay,” he said.

In its response to this round of complaints, Ultra Tune echoed Buckley’s sentiments and highlighted the differences between the muffler ad, and the train tracks ad, which was banned by the Board last year, for promoting a negative stereotype of the women as unintelligent and unaware of their surroundings.

Ultra Tune then urged the Board to be consistent in its decisions for the sake of brands and advertisers because it had relied on previous rulings to construct this version of the campaign – “in particular, with the Muffler advertisements (which is clearly intended as hyper-realisatic and comedic), Ultra Tune has striven to avoid that particular negative stereotype”.

“Following upon the Board’s decisions last year in respect of Ultra Tune’s advertising, Ultra Tune has sought by its most recent advertising to avoid any depiction of women as unintelligent or unaware of their surroundings.”

Ultra Tune also argued the volume of complaints should not be a determining factor in the Board’s decision, and implied a lobby group could be driving the opposition to the campaign.

“The wording of a number of the emails (in particular, but not limited to, the references to “wet t-shirt”) follows the wording of a post on the website Collective Shout Ltd (Collective Shout), dated 16 January 2017.

“Collective Shout will be familiar to the Bureau, it has long campaigned against advertisers (of which Ultra Tune is one) and indeed the Advertising Standards Board in respect of alleged objectification of women and sexualisation of girls in advertising,” the brand noted in its response to the Board.

Ultra Tune stopped shout of outright accusing Collective Shout of orchestrating the numerous complaints – “Ultra Tune is not, of course, in a position to positively say that the complaints were or are part of a campaign” – but questioned whether the complaints actually had any merit.

Agreeing with the brand’s assertion that “the fact the actors are female bears no consequence for the overall message of the advertisement” and that the situation depicted is “hyper-realisatic” and “comical”, the Board ruled: “A muffler falling off a car and catching fire, while uncommon, could happen to any person and considered that the advertisement’s depiction of this happening to two women, who then take control of the situation, does not discriminate against or vilify a person or section of the community on account of gender.”

In addition, the Board concluded that advertisers are free to use who they wish in their advertisements and the women were not dressed inappropriately – even if their appearance may be “considered as sext to some viewers” but as “exaggerated to others”.

Despite the ruling, the decision was not unanimous, with some Board members expressing concerns.

“A minority of the Board considered that this focus on women’s bodies is gratuitous and in their view presents women in a manner which is both exploitative, as it reduces them to parts of a body, and degrading because they can’t use a fire extinguisher without wiggling their bottoms and spraying one another’s breasts.”

After a lengthy discussion however, the Board’s majority ruled.

“The majority of the Board considered that the focus on the women’s bodies during the fire extinguisher scenes is very fleeting and in their view while it was exploitative to focus, albeit briefly, on women’s body parts, the women are depicted as being in control and having fun, which is not degrading or demeaning to women.”

The brand’s ads featuring threatening youths whose ill-intent is thwarted by the appearance of Jeanne-Claude Van Damme when the gang become distracted, and instead of harming the women request selfies with the Hollywood star, also attracted complaints, but these too were dismissed by the Board.

Ultra Tune contended Van Damme’s starring role in previous automotive campaigns  – a reference to his famous Volvo splits ad – and his Hollywood career justified the tone and humour in the ad, and suggested misinformed viewers may have missed the point.

“It would appear to Ultra Tune that many of the complainants have not watched the advertisement particularly closely, but instead have seen it simply as a continuation of the previous Ultra Tune advertisements with the two women actors.

“In that regard, we observe that some complaints do not appear to have realised who Mr Van Damme is.”

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