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Regulation of billboard and outdoor advertising

CHAIR —We will now proceed to the public forum. I invite you to make a statement or to respond to anything you have heard throughout the day or to anything you have heard throughout the inquiry so far.

Mrs Smith —I speak as someone who took part in the discussions that made the standards. I was one of the many people who contributed to the standards that were formulated originally, which nobody seems to take any notice of now because they are voluntary. Nobody follows them up and nobody has any teeth to do anything about them. The standards committee is made up of advertisers, so they have not got any interest in doing anything. It is not very satisfactory, I feel. I did try. I have not tried for a long time to make any complaint. It was really very pointless. On the last time that I did, after about three or four months I got back a very long letter that explained patiently to me that I was really out of touch, that the advertisement was not aimed at young people and that it was aimed at the upper end of the market. I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ If the standards that are set down are not adhered to, where does the public go? Otherwise there is no point in having any standards and you feel that complaining is fruitless. As for a billboard, really there is no-one to go to because there is no-one in charge. If they are doing advertising on the television you can go to sponsors. They sometimes react quite well when you say, ‘I’m not going to buy your product if you promote films’—or whatever it is—‘like that’ or ‘I’m not going to buy your product if your promotions contain such things.’ There is nowhere to go with many things.

CHAIR —Thank you, Mrs Smith.

Ms —I am here on my own behalf but I used to work in advertising and I have extensive experience of these regulatory bodies. I have made a submission to the inquiry and I have a little summary of it here for the record. There are three brief points that I would like to make. I put them at greater length in my submission.

No. 1 is that the way that the trade practices and fair trading legislation is currently applied to advertising causes consumers to make incorrect assumptions about the types of advertising claims that are made. Average consumers are not aware that the system is patchy at best. Under the system some products have their claims verified by agencies, such as the Therapeutic Goods Administration, before they go to market but others do not. This leads to a system of imperfect information. It can mislead people into preferring the wild claims of fly-by-night quackery to the measured claims of reputable marketers. Removing this distortion of information should be the priority of any inquiry into advertising.

No. 2 is that the prevailing community standards are actually reflected already by sales. Marketers spend considerable amounts of money each year on market research, both quantitative and qualitative—nowhere near as much as the government spends but then the marketer’s products are not usually quite as hard to sell as the government’s!

CHAIR —Settle down!

Ms McGuinness —People actually want them! Over the course of the years marketers build public trust in their products and brand health is a major long-term investment. Marketers are terrified of alienating their audience. Marketers want to know what you think so that they can please you. A marketer might try to shock a little to get your attention but the last thing they actually want to do is lose your affection. They are the first to kill a campaign which has an unanticipated backlash, because they might lose customers. It is not in a marketer’s best interest to offend a wider community. Marketers do not set community standards. They reflect them. You can tell if they are successful by how profitable they are.

No. 3 is this. It is a huge revelation to most people outside the industry that competing marketers are among the most active complainants. They do it to get a competitive edge. I will tell you why it is such an effective strategy: other marketers are terrified of having their reputations ruined and time off air is costly. It is not only about the costs to your investment in the making of the advertising campaign and the cost of the media that you cannot rebook. It also gives your competitors the chance to be on air exclusively without competition. But, of course, there are also bona fide complainants. They speak for themselves only, though. How can we possibly extrapolate 20 complaints—or even 200 complaints—to a population of 20 million? Why should we agree to having the morality of a handful imposed on all of us? I will give you an example. The only marketer which is not consumer led is the government, which regularly produces campaigns that cause fear and distress. Yet there are comparatively few complaints raised against the gory and terrifying ads that government agencies bombard us with, perhaps because they are in alignment with the morality of the most common complainants. This inquiry arises in part from complaints about a billboard campaign of a so-called advanced medical institute which is a highly shonky outfit but it is not the substance of this inquiry though perhaps it might be a more appropriate subject in this case.

CHAIR —That would be for the health committee. Sorry, I am being flippant.

Ms McGuinness —Seriously, the real problem about this is that the Advanced Medical Institute is able to put such inappropriate advertisements on billboards and on air—and not be just laughed off—because we have this patchy system of regulation, which essentially makes it successful. The reason that people buy something like instant Botox from a pharmacy is that it is sitting next to something which is TGA approved. That halo effect works across both of these things. However, I think that is a separate measure. It is what in part distorts the argument I am making here about sales. If we can sort that out then the profit margin of marketers will give you a true indication of what community standards on these matters are. Furthermore, returning to these—

CHAIR —Probably the Reader’s Digest version would be best. We might have to move on.

Ms McGuinness —It is nearly over, I promise you. But I would like to make all of the points, which is why I have put it into a structure.

CHAIR —Yes. Sure.

Ms McGuinness —The most common complaint was that the billboards and other media actually contained the concepts which adults are forced to explain to children. But there are hardly any complaints about billboards covering the subject of tobacco-induced gangrene. Why is it more difficult to explain to a child that the word ‘sex’ refers to the love between two adults than it is to explain that grandpa’s toes are probably not going to fall off as a result of the cigarette he has after dinner each day?

In fact, sex and sexualisation are suspiciously common themes in advertising complaints. It is a highly subjective area, complicated by the discomfort some people feel about their own bodies and inclinations. The line between a picture of a child and child pornography seems dangerously fine to some complainants. Others find that a seminaked body is an incitement to commit lascivious acts with strangers. I am not even going to try to navigate these boundaries on behalf of others, but I would like to point out that the image of a normal-weight to heavy woman in her underwear does not seem to cause the same offence as an image of a model. What is more, there are far more suggestive poses in the art galleries we send our children on excursions to. But a Rubens does not seem to cause the same angst as Kate Moss does. I am afraid I do not believe it is the role of regulators to tend to individual neuroses.

Finally, in a society of free individuals, it is inevitable that some individuals will cause offence to others. It is also a fact of life that some individuals are more quick to take offence. If it is truly the intention of this inquiry to achieve an outcome which reflects community standards, it must not be swayed by a handful of complaints. It must attempt to gauge the sentiment of the community at large. And, in doing so, it could do worse than to look to reputable marketers behind those, because, as long as marketers continue to operate on a profit motive, their decisions will remain a pretty good indicator of prevailing community standards. Otherwise, we will once again find ourselves hostage to a few noisy voices challenging our right to go about living our lives in apolitical silence. That is it!

CHAIR —Thank you, Ms McGuinness. Mr Sell?

Mr Sell —I am from Sydney. I am here with my wife today. I am here as an observer so I will remain quiet at this stage.

Mrs Sell —I have a statement here. If you would like me to read it later I can.


Mrs Sell —Would you like me to read it now?

CHAIR —Yes. This is your time.

Mrs Sell —Let us imagine the exact replication of one of the Sexpo billboard ads in Macquarie Street, Sydney, maybe just outside parliament house—not a picture but the same topless woman standing on the footpath with her breasts being held by cricket gloves—and people passing by. What would you do if you saw her there? What would a police officer do if he or she saw her standing there? Let us imagine a woman—

CHAIR —As in: in real life?

Mrs Sell —Yes—an exact replica, in real life. Let us imagine a woman in lingerie or women in jeans, topless, holding their breasts, as seen in shopfront windows and on large display ads in shopping centres, now standing, in real life, on level 2 at Westfield Parramatta. What would centre management security do if they saw these women? Let us imagine the billboard advertising condoms: a topless man lying on top of a topless woman on the grass in the middle of Darling Harbour, no nipples showing or genitals in view. One could not tell if sexual intercourse was taking place but, beside them, there is a packet of condoms. What would a police officer do if he or she saw them?

Recently, I spoke to several police officers, who I had never met before, from different police stations. I also spoke with senior management staff responsible for the security of three major shopping centres in Sydney who I had never spoken with or met before. Regarding the women in the shopping centre, all the responses were the same: the women who were topless or in lingerie would be asked to put clothes on or leave the premises. Why? The reply: these women would have violated the dress code for the shopping centre, a public place. Regarding the couple with the condoms beside them, all the officers said that the couple would be asked to stop what they were doing. Any resistance and they would be charged with misconduct. Why? The reply: because it was behaviour considered by most of the community to be inappropriate and offensive. Why? Because it was a public place.

Many question what the difference is between these billboard ads and the re-enactment of the real-life scenarios. Are not these ads in public places and in direct contradiction to public law? The people in the ads are real; the products are real. Businesses do not spend thousands of dollars on outdoor and billboard advertising to have ads created that are not real or effective, do they? That would defeat the very purpose of advertising, wouldn’t it?

Most members of the public consider these types of ads to be inappropriate and offensive. One can reason that only a minority are complaining, but I spoke to at least 50 people over the last week and they all had complaints about outdoor advertising. A majority of people are complaining, but not officially. Why is that? Who has the time? Do people know who to complain to? Is anybody going to find out who is complaining and why? Is anybody going to listen and take action?

Let us imagine a mother, maybe one just like me, spray-painting a billboard. What if I decided to spray-paint my own message over an outdoor billboard ad? What if I decided to paint clothes on all the billboards where the people in the ads were naked? What would happen to me if a police officer passed by and saw me spray-painting? Wouldn’t I be charged with malicious damage and given a jail sentence, especially if I continued to reoffend?

Is there no penalty for advertisers or companies when they breach their own advertising code? Where is the penalty for misleading advertising? Why are these types of ads even allowed in public places? Why are ads in public places not G rated? Where is a person’s right not to see advertising when outdoors if they feel it is rude and inappropriate, if they feel harassed, if they feel it is environmentally unfriendly or even if they feel it is discriminatory? Why isn’t the holistic health of a child considered? They have no choice but to see these types of confusing ads when they are in public places. Who decides when complaints are to be dismissed or upheld? Is there a bias? Is the health and welfare of all the people in the community considered?

Like many others with whom I have spoken, I believe that the code of ethics and the regulation of outdoor and billboard advertising are inadequate. Why? Is money the only priority or the highest priority? The examples I have mentioned are just a few of the thousands of outdoor ads in Australia that are in direct contradiction to public law. The health and wellbeing of the majority of people in the community are not being considered in these types of ads.

Thank you for your time and consideration. I am a mother speaking on behalf of many other mothers, fathers, police officers, carpenters, builders, businessmen, teachers, sales assistants, fashion assistants, social workers, children and teenage girls. My message is: enough is enough. Fix it up, or get rid of it completely.

Ms Liszewski —I represent myself, and I am also here on behalf of the organisation that I am part of, Collective Shout, which I understand will be represented in Melbourne.

CHAIR —But you will not be in Melbourne?

Ms Liszewski —I do not know if I can make it to Melbourne, but my colleague will definitely be there. Today was a great opportunity for me to hear what the industry bodies are saying about outdoor advertising. Charmaine Moldrich mentioned that outdoor advertising is a reinforcement medium. There is other advertising in the community—television and radio—and outdoor advertising reinforces it. But what we would like to put to you is that it not only reinforces the product being sold, but it reinforces the values and attitudes that are inherent in the type of advertising. So, if you have sexist advertising on television and radio, you are reinforcing those messages with outdoor advertising. The difference with outdoor advertising, which has been pointed out by many, is that you cannot switch it off; it is in your face every day. For families who have their children in their car and are trying to teach them respect for women and equality, these ads often fly in the face of that and undermine the message.

What we as an organisation have noticed is that the Advertising Standards Board relies on a code of ethics and, to be honest, their interpretation of the code is often very baffling; it is a very loose interpretation. The ASB’s response to complaints about an advertisement which many people would recognise as being sexualised is that, ‘although the ad is mildly sexually suggestive, it is not sexualised’. Those two contradictory statements were in the same decision. They said it was not sexualised because no nipples were showing and the woman’s breasts were covered by her hand.

CHAIR —Is this the cricket gloves one?

Ms Liszewski —No, this is another one. You might recognise it if you saw it. It is for Bardot, which is a clothing brand. The determination said the ad was on the back of buses, but I am pretty sure I have seen it on the side of buses. In the ad, the woman is topless and she is lying down on a sheepskin rug. She is wearing ‘jeggings’, which are very tight jeans. She has jewellery and makeup on. She is posing with a pouty ‘come hither’ look. And apparently that is not sexual! In what universe is that not a centralised image! If that is not a sexualised image then we need to let FHM readers know that what they are reading is not sexualised images—this looks like it is straight out of a men’s magazine.

The advertisers said the reason the woman was topless is because they wanted to draw attention to the jeggings. I would argue that it actually draws attention away from the jeggings—but that is probably beside the point. The board has determined that this sexualised image of a woman is not sexualised and does not objectify women, and therefore the complaint is dismissed. This is why, as one of the others here on the panel said, people do not make complaints anymore. It is pointless to make a complaint. When they make a complaint about an ad which, in their judgement, is inappropriate for viewing by children because it objectifies women and is sexist, they get knocked back. So why would they bother complaining again? That is just one example. There have been complaints about other ads which have been dismissed.

When the advertising industry says that only a small number of ads have been found to breach the code, that sounds great. However, there are many legitimate complaints about other ads which have not breached the code but which we feel should have been removed because they objectify women or because they are sexist or overtly sexualised.

CHAIR —That does not breach the code?

Ms Liszewski —They say it does not breach the code.

CHAIR —Even though they objectify women, that is not a trigger point under the ASB code?

Ms Liszewski —Correct. Supporters of our organisation will write to the Advertising Standards Board with a legitimate complaint saying an ad objectifies and sexualises women and exposes children to unnecessary sexual themes, but the Advertising Standards Board will say in their determination that that is not the case and reject the complaint.

CHAIR —What does objectifying women—or, for that matter, men—mean to Collective Shout?

Ms Liszewski —To objectify a woman is to portray her in a way which draws attention to her body parts and her sexual appeal, to the exclusion of other characteristics. An example of objectification that we can point to is the Sexpo billboards. A complaint about these ads that was dismissed last year featured a woman in a bikini. She was on all fours with her back arched and her bottom in the air. We would say that that objectifies this woman.

CHAIR —With a motorbike?

Ms Liszewski —Yes, with a motorbike.

Ms McGuinness —Would that other ad, with the various women in their underwear, also be objectification?

Ms Liszewski —Yes, we would argue that that is a form of objectification.

Ms McGuinness —Is that a billboard you have complained about?

Ms Liszewski —I do not know if Dove had run their campaign when we began. Actually, their campaign had finished. But that is certainly one that supporters in our organisation would have spoken out about. With Dove in particular, what we would have been challenging is that, while including women of all different body types is, in a way, a noble goal, the brand is owned by Unilever, the same organisation that produces Lynx commercials, which do the opposite of what Dove sets out to do.

Ms McGuinness —So you would complain about that ad because the same company made an ad in a different style?

Ms Liszewski —We would point out that Dove is putting across a campaign about loving yourself, and about women being beautiful, yet Lynx, another brand that is owned by Unilever, does exactly the opposite; it undermines their own message. That is what our complaint would be about.

CHAIR —Ms McGuinness, we heard yesterday from the Eros Association. They suggested in their submission that there should be a trigger point for a complaint to be justified. They gave the example that, if a billboard is seen by 200,000 people, you would need 2,000 people, or one per cent, to be sufficient as a trigger point. I suggested the counter-argument that you then might get people running around to get 2,000 names on a petition, and it might be frivolous complaint instead of one legitimate complaint. Could you make a comment on that? I know it was their suggestion about a trigger point, but you touched on it in your opening remarks.

Ms McGuinness —I think that trigger points of these kinds are, as you say, dangerous. To effectively solve this issue in some measure, you might want to offer a kind of outside regulation which marketers could subject themselves to if they wished.

CHAIR —A pre-vetting type process?

Ms McGuinness —That is right, without the mark of which you would have less credibility. That does not mean you would have to obtain that; it just simply means that the credibility that is associated with that mark will also be associated with some kind of review of the advertising that was being put out into the community. Something like an advanced medical institute would just have no credibility in the first place and therefore would not have the money, probably, to advertise for very much longer.

CHAIR —We had a suggestion from a previous submitter, the Pedestrian Council of Australia, that the penalties were not sufficient in terms of remedying a breach. Basically, ‘stop doing it’ is the remedy. He suggested that a possible remedy might be to, if you had objectified women, then show an ad humanising or promoting women. If you had an ad showing speeding, you would have to have an ad showing responsible driving.

Ms McGuinness —I guess the trouble with that argument is that what you are trying to say is that it is the role of advertisers to set community standards. It is not. It is the role of the community to have standards and advertisers are just trying to reflect that in some way that will appeal to us generally. Of course, there are individuals who are going to be offended by certain ads. But if Bardot doesn’t appeal to enough people then they are not going to by Bardot jeans. So essentially a vote has happened, a whole lot of people haven’t complained and have gone in and bought Bardot products.

CHAIR —So the market rather than the dead hand of government.

Ms McGuinness —Yes, indeed.

Ms Liszewski —With regard to letting the market decide what ads are placed and what are not, the problem with that is that children who are not going to go out and complain about advertising are not going to set community standards, and nor should they have to. There is a growing body of research showing that the sexualisation of women and girls in the media is detrimental to their health and wellbeing. This has been included in the American Psychological Association’s report on the sexualisation of girls, the UK report on the sexualisation of young people, and in Australia there are the reports from the Australia Institute, ‘Letting children be children’ and ‘Corporate paedophilia: sexualisation of children in Australia’. There is a growing body of literature showing evidence of harm. So when we start to talk about who is offended and who is not, a lot of these ads that I would make a complaint about, are not about me being offended. I have seen so much I am desensitised. I do not get offended any more. But I do recognise that these images—and it is not just one image; it is the accumulation of them all and the message they say about women—create an environment for women and girls which is toxic to their health. And ‘toxic’ is the word that the American Physiological Association has used. So we have girls with poor self-esteem, depression and eating disorders. These things should be alarming and I feel as though when we are talking about offence and standards and who does what, we are actually ignoring a really important element of this.

Mrs Smith —I agree. It is not that we are being offended. I have seen it all too—I am very old. It is not me I am offended for; it is my grandchildren—my two grand daughters, eight and ten, who are starting to look and dance like someone off the Rage show. This is not good. They get the idea that if you want to be looked at and noticed, you have to be like those ads, and like whatever it is that attracts attention. This is not a good image for most women, particularly if they are not endowed with a good figure and all the rest. It makes them very unhappy. So we have a lot of unhappy teenagers.

CHAIR —Could I play the role of devil’s advocate and suggest that it is not the first time in the history of humanity that the older generation has despaired about the younger generation.

Mrs Smith —I realise that. I am not despairing about the younger generation; I am saying, ‘What are we doing to them?’ because they have got to cope.

CHAIR —Mrs Sell, would you like to comment?

Mrs Sell —Exactly what about?

CHAIR —The concept raised by Ms Liszewski—I am sorry if I am mispronouncing that; in Hansard it will all be perfect—that that representation of women is something we need to protect society from.

Mrs Sell —Of course. I have a daughter and the advertising does really affect children, whether it is on the TV, outdoors, in catalogues or wherever. It does affect them. It affects my daughter. What affects her the most, I believe, is the nudity she constantly sees. I have taught my children that they have to keep their clothes on, but everywhere they look they see everybody taking their clothes off. It is quite confusing for a child to understand that. I actually asked a couple of kids about a particular ad. Their comments were, ‘She naked—that’s wrong. She hasn’t got her clothes on.’

CHAIR —I think it is a little bit that way, but if I were to go down to Bondi Beach now I might find some people dressed in a public area that, if they had walked into the committee, might have made me raise my eyebrows.

Mrs Sell —That is right.

CHAIR —So context is everything. There is not one set of clothes for all occasions. I do not wear this uniform all the time.

Mrs Sell —But why is it becoming more acceptable for people to be able to do that at the beaches?

CHAIR —To wear bikinis?

Mrs Sell —No, to be topless—or things like that.

CHAIR —I was not thinking of topless.

Mrs Sell —I am just saying that it is becoming more acceptable because advertising and the media are making it. They are setting the standard.

Mrs Smith —They are setting the standards.

Mrs Sell —They are not listening to the community. I have made complaints, and I am a very busy person. I do not get responses from certain organisations. Roger David was one. I contacted them in person and wrote an email. I was appalled at their clothing disguised as fashion where women were gagged, chained and naked being used to sell. I told them, ‘I will never shop in your shop again.’ And I told them that I was going to tell everybody I knew not to shop or buy their products. But they did not care.

Mrs Smith —Of course, there are enough young ones that will.

Ms Liszewski —Context is lacking in some of the responses from the ASB. On the Bardot one, for example, the advertiser’s response was, ‘Oh, you’d see more flesh at the beach.’ The ASB said that she was covering her breasts. But this is not the point. It is not even just about the nudity; it is about the context—the sexual pose, the fact that it is on the side of a bus, but the fact that it is so prolific. I think that is really lacking when we are looking at these issues.

CHAIR —I would like to invite other comments.

Ms McGuinness —We have managed to keep our clothes on for hundreds of years despite painting and making statues of naked people. We can continue to keep our clothes on if we wish.

Mrs Sell —As long as you do it in a private place and I do not have to see it.

Mrs Smith —That is right.

CHAIR —There is certainly a school of thought—and I am from Queensland, the sun cancer capital of the world—that there is less flesh on the beaches now because of sun cancer, but that is only one view. Could I have final comments.

Ms Liszewski —I just wanted to say that advertising does not only reflect community standards; advertising is designed to sell products. As discussed earlier when the advertising industry was speaking, they use cognitive research and eye-tracking research. I think one of them mentioned that that is their second largest bill in their budget. They put a lot of money into that. How can we then believe that they are not directing the way a culture thinks and about women in particular. So, as well as reflecting, it does direct.

We need to make some changes so that we can start seeing a better environment for children, women and girls in response to the research. One thing we would like to see is the Advertising Standards Board take into account the research surrounding the sexualisation of children and the objectification of women, and their detrimental effects, because time and time again that is ignored.

CHAIR —Have you seen that, and knowledge about that, in any of their responses?

Ms Liszewski —Not really, no. My understanding is that they do not consult with child development professionals when making determinations or setting standards about ads.

CHAIR —Would anyone else like to make a final comment?

Mrs Smith —They are setting standards but they are saying that what they are directing at is not children so therefore it does not matter. Also, the context, you were saying, was everything. When you look at those television standards, they say the context has to be considered in the film if you give it such and such a rating. The context is everything. Here we get these ads quite out of context; they do not have any context.

CHAIR —Thank you all for taking the time to come along today and make your submissions. If you have anything further you want to make the committee aware of, we are still accepting information.

Resolved (on motion by Mrs Moylan):

That this committee authorises publication, including publication on the parliamentary database, of the transcript of the evidence given before it at public hearing this day.

Committee adjourned at 2.26 pm