What is accepted in advertising today, won’t be tomorrow

Last week saw the last of the TV upfronts, where the networks showcase their various wares for 2024 – with SBS booking the Town Hall on Tuesday for a convivial, flower-filled luncheon.

Before I go on, I would like to applaud this prawn delivery system served up before the upfront – proof positive that SBS rules when it comes to content.

Yes, those are prawns in prawn crackers. But you’re getting distracted! SBS is serving the people in ways that are arguably even more important than seafood plating.

The network announced it will take what it called “a leadership position regarding responsible advertising”, introducing a new feature within SBS On Demand that allows viewers to opt-out of receiving advertising in the categories of wagering, alcoholic beverages, and ‘quick service restaurants’ – which, I quickly learned, is the umbrella under which the Menulogs and Milkruns and Macca’s now all huddle.

So, should you choose, from next year you can avoid alcohol, gambling, and Snoop Dogg-related advertising.

“This is responsible advertising at its best”, said James Taylor, managing director of SBS.

This is true. It is responsible advertising – because, after all, it lands somewhere between ‘negligent’ and ‘cruel’ to — as a society — accept that certain on-sale products can be addictive, and then allow them to be advertised to those who struggle with these addictions. If a way to avoid this is available to us, then we should explore this option. That’s what SBS is doing.

In this way, it is undeniably responsible advertising at its best. So, bravo!

It’s also very smart advertising. Firstly, it’s smart as an advertisement for SBS’s own humane focus  – during the upfront they also announced their net zero wins, expanded their multicultural offering, pushed advertisers to spend with First Nations programs, and even gave the World Cup back to the people. 

SBS was also smart to make it clear when announcing this at the upfront that Endeavour Drinks and Tabcorp, two of its key sponsors in the aforementioned opt-out-able categories, are totally on board with this policy.

SBS is also smart in getting in first with this opt-out feature, because as regulations tighten, and society marches onward, we will inevitably see the end of legal alcohol and gambling advertising. 

We have a way to go yet, given that alcohol and gambling taxes are propping up our economy, and alcohol sponsorship still pays for a few fair groundskeepers over at the major sporting clubs/codes. This week, Seven copped the maximum possible fine for showing gambling advertising during live sports coverage on its streaming service  – a paltry $13,200. Seven called it “an isolated instance of human error”, and I’m sure this is true. But $13,200? As far as disincentives go, it’s up there with school suspension and “go to your room, when you keep all your stuff.”

So yeah, a total ban is a few years off, yet.

But it is inevitable. Remember the Winfield Cup? The Marlborough Man? Smokey, the Friendly Cigarette? Well, I made the last one up, but in Australia, until the late ’90s, cigarette advertising was considered perfectly fine and legal. 

In 2006, Australian lawmakers dramatically overcorrected. Cigarette companies who were happily pitching smokes to kids between Saturday morning cartoons were now required to carry horrendous imagery of rotting organs and corpses on their packets (click if you dare).

It gets crazier the further back you go.

Through the 1970s, you could just rifle through a Kmart catalogue and land upon an advertisement for a rifle sale.

And, although Smokey the Friendly Cigarette came from the realms of my boundless imagination, The Flintstones actually appeared on cigarette commercials, with Fred rattling off natural one-liners like “Winston is the one-filter cigarette that delivers flavour twenty times a pack.”

Why not light up now* and watch the below piece of jaw-drawing television history?

(*Mumbrella does not suggest you ‘light up now’ and was merely using a turn of phrase.)

Here’s Joe the Camel, or ‘Old Joe’, who was market-tested and designed to appeal to the kids, with his cool James Bond look.

In 1991, a brand recognition study among 229 children aged between three to six was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

It found that 91.3% of six-year-old children and 30% of three-year-olds  “correctly matched Old Joe with a picture of a cigarette”. These were roughly the same recognition rates they had with the Disney Channel logo. Mickey Mouse and Old Joe: twin American icons.

Let’s go a little further back still.

This is how they were doing things in 1910.

From the Chudnow Collection at the Cedarburg History Museum


All of this is to say: what we accept in advertising today, we may not accept tomorrow.

SBS was smart to get on the front foot – and to declare it as an audience-first move. Because, it is – all easy cynicism aside. It is a clear societal win, and nobody grumbles over seeing too few Sportsbet ads.

They have also been very careful not to make this a moral crusade. 

As James Taylor pointed out at the SBS Upfront during the week, “The advertiser benefits by not paying to reach people who have no interest in their product.”

This is true. The Vodka Cruiser #SpritzMe campaign isn’t aiming to hook the destitute drunk who destroyed his life – but that doesn’t mean it won’t reel him in regardless.

This is a responsible, elegant move.

Tabcorp loves it, Endeavour loves it, and judging by the response, the people who buy the ads love it – but will the other networks love it enough to follow suit?

They kinda have to, don’t they? You cannot unring the bell.

I expect we’ll see all ad-supported streaming services offering a version of these opt-in advertising restrictions before too long.

The networks and streamers who act slowly will be tskk’d into speeding up, it will become the norm, society will nudge forward a little bit further, and it’ll soon be as if Barney Rubble never smoked a cigarette on television at all…

Enjoy your weekend!

Nathan Jolly

For more on the week’s news, listen to the latest Mumbrellacast, where Neil Griffiths, Adam Lang and Lauren McNamara look at Telstra’s recent agency roster shake-up, which resulted in big redundancies at CHEP, and go inside SCA’s annual general meeting.


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