Opinion

The ad watchdog failed adland and consumers in 2018

The role of Australia’s ad watchdog is to “uphold prevailing community values”, but the list of ads it banned this year - and those which it has allowed to remain on the air in the past - indicate it is wildly out of touch, argues Mumbrella’s editor Vivienne Kelly.

In December, Ad Standards revealed which ads it has received the most complaints about throughout 2018.

Topping the list was Sportsbet’s ‘Manscaping’ campaign with 793 complaints.

“793?”, you say, indignantly. “That’s not that many. I hear way more people complain about WPP’s new logo/ the hours they are expected to work in adland/ the amount of My Kitchen Rules scheduled to be on television next year/ the lack of on-screen chemistry between Georgie Gardner and Karl Stefanovic/ the archaic radio ratings system!”

You are correct, it’s not that many, but we all know the noisiest wheel gets the most grease, and for context, last year’s chart-topping most-hated ad was the fifth execution of Ultra Tune’s Unexpected Situations campaign, and it only generated 359 complaints.

More interesting still, is that Ultra Tune’s lazy sexist ad from 2017 wasn’t banned by the watchdog – despite apparently lengthy disagreements between board members – but Sportsbet’s ‘manscaping’ one from this year, was.

Ad Standards said the ‘manscaping’ ad – which you can watch below – could be considered sexual by many members of the public and showcased an inappropriate level of nudity to an audience, which could include children (despite earlier saying the nudity was only “implied”).

“The Panel considered that young children would not understand the context of the advertisement but considered that a depiction suggesting removal or trimming of pubic hair would be considered by most members of the community to be inappropriate to be viewed by a broad audience that would include children,” the ruling said.

So even though children won’t know what’s going on in the advert, or why, it’s still too sexual for them to be exposed to, according to Ad Standards.

Furthermore, “The Panel considered that while ‘manscaping’ may be a concept understood by many adults, references to or suggestions of the trimming or removal of pubic hair is considered sexual by many members of the community,” the ruling said.

So are we worried that children will be sexualised by a man sitting in the sink removing his pubes, or are we worried adults will project their own conservative world-views about public hair being inherently tied to sex onto this ad, and be outraged by its apparently unavoidable sexual connotations?

Ad Standards itself said children won’t understand the context, so even if they laugh along with the ad, or watch its every frame intently, if they’re devoid of the sexual background and connotations which lead us adults to think the man is preparing for a dirty, dirty sex-fest – then I can only imagine it will go over their heads (a bit like me screaming out the lyrics to the Spice Girls “2 become 1” lyrics in the 1990s (and oh so many other songs), only to years later realise what I was actually crowing about).

Ultimately Ad Standards determined Sportsbet’s ad did not “treat the issue of sex, sexuality and nudity with sensitivity”, and thus breached Section 2.4 of the Code (“Advertising or Marketing Communication shall treat sex, sexuality and nudity with sensitivity to the relevant audience”).

But here’s the thing. He wasn’t nude. He wasn’t having sex. And I don’t think his sexuality – in terms of which gender he is interested in, and the wider meaning of the term, his general sexual nature, desires and disposition, and how he appears sexually to others – comes into his shaving and / or betting habits at all.

Whilst it’s interesting to view a scenario in which men’s bodies are being watched, scrutinised and policed in a manner normally reserved for women, for me, this ad is so far from sexual it’s not even funny. The guy in this ad is in no way sexualised or being positioned as a sexual object.

I think my news editor Paul Wallbank may be right when he argued on our podcast that perhaps this ad set itself up for additional scrutiny, criticism and complaining because it promotes a betting company. And with betting companies, it’s highly likely that if they’re not your thing, you bloody hate them – especially if they show manscaping. Won’t somebody please think of the children!

I do actually fall into the camp that believes gambling is a destroyer of individuals, families and communities (the prevailing standards of which Ad Standards is supposed to be representing), but if we’re discussing the ad watchdog, that’s not the issue at play.

The issue at play, apparently, is sex, sexuality and bodies on television.

In that sense, it’s fucking outrageous that this ad could be banned for its portrayal of sex and bodies, while Ultra Tune’s nonsense – which frequently exploits women’s bodies and treats them as sexual objects with so much innuendo and old-school lad’s-mag themes it’s too exhausting to even list – can remain on the air.

Next up on Ad Standards’ list was an iSelect ad featuring a woman temporarily enraged by her insurance premiums climbing. To expel the rage, she enthusiastically attacks a piñata at a children’s birthday party, much to the apparent distress of the children around her.

This ad, after 716 complaints, was also banned on the basis that it was “very violent and menacing”.

I’m sorry, what?

The distress of the children in this ad lasts less than five seconds – I counted. You first see a child flinch (I wouldn’t even go so far as to say he looks scared, and the other children look more confused than anything) three seconds in. By the eight-second mark, the children are joyously screaming and collecting the treats which descended upon them from the violated and battered piñata.

As Mumbrella’s deputy editor Josie Tutty pointed out in the Mumbrellacast, piñatas are supposed to be hit with a bat. There is nothing unnecessarily violent about this ad. (Won’t somebody think of the piñata?)

If the children are ‘scared’ in this ad (and I would argue they’re not) it lasts for five seconds – which, frankly, is less time than I spend in fear of what is under my bed if I let my leg dangle over the side in the middle of the night in a failed attempt to regulate my body temperature, and I turn 30 in March.

The advertiser had to come out after the ruling and assure the community it “does not tolerate domestic violence”.

Jesus.

Neither do I.

I agree that not tolerating domestic violence SHOULD be a prevailing community standard (I say should be, rather than IS, because its ongoing prevalence in the community and lack of action at higher levels indicates it may not be yet).

This ad is nowhere close to that though. I completely disagree with Ad Standards’ summation that it is unsafe for children to be around this lolly-seeking woman.

Thank goodness for those few Panel members who apparently saw sense: “A minority of the Panel considered that the depiction of a woman using a stick violently in the context of a piñata game would not be considered unsafe behaviour as this was consistent with the accepted use of a piñata in a party setting.”

This ad also received complaints for how it portrayed women. This aspect of the numerous complaints was dismissed by Ad Standards, but, honestly, if we’re going to ban an ad from our screens for its portrayal of women, we should have canned Westfield’s abomination from earlier this year, which featured mums “staying true to themselves”.

The press release crowed about how the ad steered clear of stereotyping mums, whilst showcasing how they switch between roles “from cooking with the kids and experimenting with the latest fashion, to catching up with her mum tribe”.

Arr, yes, stereotype, be gone!

The Westfield ad sticks in my mind for the rage it induced in me in March – somebody find me a piñata – so, for me, it has to be the worst of the year. I’m sure there are other offenders out there though, so let me know your thoughts on the best and worst of 2018 (and if you think Ad Standards had a successful, or a silly, year).

And if we won’t ban the Westfield ad, can we have a pre-emptive strike against Ultra Tune’s ad featuring Charlie Sheen, which I hear could be due to hit screens around the Australian Open.

Let’s call ‘time’ on that campaign, and banning ads for outdated ideas about sex, hair and how women should behave.

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