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Thursday, 17 October 1985
Page: 1397

Senator VIGOR(1.20) —Today I raise the question of advertising and the public interest. I also raise the needs for consumers who have been injured, as a result of product or advertising negligence, to have an effective means of obtaining proper redress. In that regard I indicate that I am currently investigating the issues of standing and class actions as possible vehicles for balancing the economic might of large corporations and the consequent legal disadvantages for the ordinary citizen. If we have any real desire to see that justice is done we have to ensure that injuries and wrongs can, in practice, be remedied and that the single individual is not thwarted by the immense legal hurdles which currently are put before him by our legal system. Of course, we need to get the basic environment right at the start. Prevention is much less costly than remedy. After an injury or illness has occurred as a result of bad advertising we must be able to gain redress.

The people of this country ought to be able to get information that is useful in making decisions about products and that, basically, is a purpose of advertising. In the United States part of that information comes in the way of comparative advertising. That approach is made far more difficult in Australia by the regulatory restrictions that are put on the advertising process. For instance, standard 38 (i) of the Television Program Standards of the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal currently in force, states:

Advertisements should contain no claims intended to disparage competing advertisers or their products or services, or other industries, professions or institutions.

A lot depends on the interpretation given to the word `disparage'. The Macquarie Dictionary lists two strands of meaning for disparage. The first is `to bring reproach or discredit upon; lower the estimation of.' If this definition is read very literally it becomes almost impossible to put forward comparative claims in advertising. That is a most unfortunate state of affairs because it denies an opportunity to the public of having product matters put to them in stark relief.

There are similar provisions in article 15 of the Media Council of Australia's code of ethics, which states:

Advertisements shall not disparage identifiable products, services or advertisers in an unfair or misleading way.

The wording in itself is not objectionable except that the word `false' should be inserted before `unfair' to give greater clarity about what is objectionable. The real question then becomes one of interpretation.

The Media Council of Australia has barred Press and radio advertisements for the Melbourne fast food chain Wendy's Hamburgers following a complaint from McDonald's Family Restaurants. The offending advertisement was headed: `Did you know the beef patties in some hamburger restaurants were frozen?' I think it is quite reasonable that such information be drawn to the public attention. It appears that no one is disputing the accuracy of the claim, but the advertising that included this information was knocked out on the grounds that it was disparaging.

There was also the case of the Western Australian Government's anti-smoking commercial called `Pretty Face'. The advertisement cost $40,000 to make and was banned by Australia's advertising standards council last December on the strength of one complaint only. The same advertisement went on to get major international acclaim during the fourteenth annual international awards competition at the United States television and radio commercial's festival earlier this year. It seems rather strange to me that we should be removing that sort of important information from people's attention when they are faced each year with massive hospital and work absence costs directly attributable to smoking.

What makes me uneasy is that these decisions can be made more or less behind closed doors and without any input by ordinary people or by their representatives from consumer organisations. It is important that active people from consumer groups have awareness of the problems of misleading advertising. Without the chance for such people to report back to the public through their member organisations we really have a problem. Advertising in Australia is monitored primarily by a variety of bodies set up by industry groupings to administer self-regulatory controls. For example, the advertising industry has funded the Advertising Standards Council and the Federation of Australian Commercial Television Stations has its commercials acceptance division. The monitoring of print advertising is dealt with by the Australian Publishers Bureau and of radio advertising by the Federation of Australian Radio Broadcasters.

An honours thesis submitted by Peter James to the Department of Government at Sydney University in October 1983 gave the following figures for the activities of these bodies in 1982: The Australian Publishers Bureau vetted and approved 1,555 advertisements for print; the Federation of Australian Radio Broadcasters accepted 11,443 of 11,500 commercials submitted in New South Wales, and the commercials acceptance division of the Federation of Australian Commercial Television Stations approved 14,204 of the 14,567 advertisements submitted for its judgment. This is an enormous work load in anyone's terms and the responsibilities are great. The general public, however, ought to have some direct input in this process and an input at that level. The decision making process must be seen as acting in the public interest otherwise suspicions will arise when unusual or difficult decisions are made. Nothing breeds such suspicions as quickly as the unavailability of information, particularly information about how standards are being interpreted. We need regular reports and reasons for decisions for the rejection of advertisements and it is absolutely essential that there be some accountability to the public.

I find it interesting that the Federation of Australian Commercial Television Stations withdrew its applications to the Trade Practices Commission for authorisation for the operations of its commercials acceptance division. The Federation regarded it as unacceptable that there be an obligation for it to consult regularly with consumer groups. That, I think, is most unfortunate as my experience of consultation especially with consumer groups is one of very constructive exchanges from which positive solutions to problems can be developed. Consumer groups should not be automatically written off as anti-business or by some other extremist description. They are interested in consumers and the business which provides the service to them. They are aware of the difficulties suffered by the consumers themselves and they have real contributions to make to the solutions to these problems.

According to the advertising source, McCann, Erickson, Hoare and Govett in 1982, $2,500m was spent on advertising in Australia. That was about 1.5 per cent of our gross national product, a greater proportion than is spent anywhere else in the Western world. We have an obligation to remove the deleterious effects of misleading advertising. We must ensure that where such advertising is consciously carried out and results in harm to people, adequate opportunities for redress and adequate compensation are available. It would, of course, be better to get public interest involvement before the trouble starts. The general public needs information on which decisions concerning products can sensibly be made. This is the purpose of advertising. It makes a positive contribution to our society and if it is going to make this contribution properly we must offer the advertising industry a sensible legislative framework in which it can operate.

Sitting suspended from 1.29 to 2 p.m.