Billboards push the boundaries of community morals

Published in the Courier Mail 11 June 2010

One sign provides direction to the uniform shop, complete with school crest. The other sign provides direction to ‘two naughty bars’, complete with breasts. Both stand at an entrance to a boy’s school and both offer a very different educational experience.

While it was recently revealed that Australia’s most hated ad in 2009 was a television commercial featuring a pole-dancing mum, billboard advertising also generated significant community complaints.

The issue of outdoor advertising is one that has largely flown under the radar, even while being right in front of our face. From time to time, certain advertising campaigns raise the ire of women’s groups, family groups and others who are simply uncomfortable with having to see overtly sexual images, sometimes on billboards over 12 metres in width, while they navigate the school drop off and the work commute.

In what has become a relatively predictable routine though, complaints are made to the Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB), and then often dismissed, leaving the ads remaining, and ironically, leaving the offending companies with increased, and free, publicity.

However, the community is still speaking up, and they are not happy with what they see. In 2009, four of the ten most complained about ads were billboard ads. All four of these ads had the complaints about them dismissed and were allowed to continue being displayed.

From 1998 to 2009, the three most complained about ads generated close to 1000 complaints. That’s an astonishing number and would generally be considered indicative of widespread community angst, yet all were allowed to continue advertising. This included the billboard ad that featured topless women and which generated over 300 complaints.

The inconsistency across our advertising standards is staggering. Even if a billboard advertisement features images that couldn’t be shown on television until after 8:30pm or 9:30pm, it can be placed outside a school for students to walk past every day. It seems an incongruous situation.

It’s also a seemingly difficult one to change for while consumers are complaining, the ASB doesn’t seem to be listening. For instance, in 2009, billboard and television advertisements generated the most complaints received by the Advertising Standards Bureau, according to Chief Executive Officer, Ms Fiona Jolly. Speaking about the types of complaints, she said, “Through its complaints, the community has made constant comment about sex, sexuality and nudity. A lot of the comment has been in relation to billboard advertising.”

According to Jolly, ‘this will be one of the issues raised in community research being conducted on behalf of the ASB early in 2010’. While this is commendable, one would think that even though a simple glance back through the most complained about advertisements can quickly give you an idea about what generates community concern.

Whether we have reaching a tipping point in relation to community standards – the very standards that the Advertising Standards Bureau claims to represent – remains to be seen.

However, community concern around the issue of outdoor advertising standards is certainly building with summits, petitions and facebook groups starting up. All the signs are there that it’s time for a conversation about outdoor advertising standards.

It’s a conversation that can quickly derail and needs to be lead sensitively and wisely. Civic leadership that provides a framework of discussion informed by notions of regard for others, rather than censorship, would be truly helpful. Notions of freedom can so distract us that we forget the little feet that patter along behind us, being affected by that which we leave in our wake.

When those with influence use it to protect the weak, rather than unthinkingly exploit or expose them, society becomes nobler. Alternatively, when the powerful become preoccupied with their rights, and have little regard for how they impact and influence others, then we are culturally diminished.

Oliver Wendell Holmes said “Life is painting a picture, not doing a sum.” When we realise that our actions are adding colour to the canvas that is our community, we realise the importance of choosing those colours well – particularly when they are on a 12 metre wide billboard.