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Pick your stereotypes carefully

Pick your stereotypes carefully

Australians and Kiwis have been giving each other stick (and laughing about it) for ages. It is so normal to us that we forget it can seem a bit strange to others.

But what about anti-Australian stereotypes in mass media advertising? How brave are you?

Bond & Bond recently ran a TV ad campaign that suggested that Australian viewers might be too simple to work out 20 percent off a price. Not surprisingly, several people, possibly of green and gold extraction, complained to the Advertising Standards Authority.

The ASA publishes codes for advertising in New Zealand. There is a general code of ethics, and also a number of specific codes including one that sets out rules for portraying people in advertising. That code discusses stereotypes, and in particular provides that stereotypes should not be used in a way that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence, hostility, contempt, abuse or ridicule. In assessing a complaint against this rule the ASA must take into account generally prevailing community standards.

The ASA has a complaints board that considers complaints from the public about ads and decides whether those ads comply with the codes. All complaints are screened by the chairman. In the Bond & Bond case the chairman took into account that the advertisement was satire and decided that while the ad would be offensive to some, it would not cause serious or widespread offence. The complaints did not proceed to the full ASA complaints board.

The chairman’s decision might have been different if there had been slightly different text, or the same ad focussed on a racial stereotype. I think that Bond & Bond were a bit lucky. We would be pretty hacked off to see the equivalent in Australia.

The chairman recently considered a not-too-different complaint about a radio ad for the National Bank. It joked about cricket players shouting too much when they think a batsman is out. The complainant to the ASA said “…This ad, was so painful to listen to; that I couldn’t follow properly, what exactly, was trying to be advertised…” The chairman considered whether stereotyping cricketers in the advertisement would be likely to cause serious and widespread offence. The chairman found that there were no grounds to proceed – the ad did not appear to breach any code. As a cricketer, I must say I was not offended in the slightest. This ad made much better use of a stereotype, because it was clearly just good fun. I remember hearing the ad on the radio and thinking “that joke is older than the hills”. There’s nothing in the ASA rule book that says your ad has to be any good. Unfortunately.

The ASA Codes of Ethics are not law – they are rule books devised by a private association. Even though ASA rules and decisions are not court orders, the ASA rarely has trouble enforcing its rulings. Mainstream advertisers are members of the ASA and have agreed through their membership contract not to publish ads that don’t comply with the codes.

Why should you care about the ASA? Well, if you advertise in New Zealand and you want to get your ads published then they will have to comply with the ASA’s rules. Information about the rules, how to comply and how to check for compliance is available free at the ASA website. Suggestion: look at the case database – it’s enough to make even an Australian sheep laugh!

Richard Anstice is a staff solicitor in Rae Nield’s office. This article is intended for general information, and should not be relied on as specific legal advice. You should consult a lawyer for advice relating to your own specific legal problems. Rae and Richard can be contacted at raenield@marketinglaw.co.nz.


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