Social media has upped the ante in what Australian writer and critic Robert Hughes called the "culture of complaint." His book of that name was published in 1993 and conjured up images of Rome as an empire in the final stages of cultural and political decay.
Society, he wrote, had become "obsessed with therapies and filled with distrust of formal politics; sceptical of authority and prey to superstition; its political language corroded by fake pity and euphemism."
That highly intellectual description now just requires being offended enough to complain to a body such as the Advertising Standards Authority.
In its 2016 Annual Report, the authority has listed the 10 most complained about adverts last year, eight of them on television. Six were not upheld, three were settled, mainly by the ad being withdrawn, and the remaining one was rejected on grounds it breached no rules. Two were from the same advertiser, 2 Cheap Cars.
Judge for yourself (in descending order) on the level of offence:
1. From ‘Ah so’ to Ah Sold’
– 2 Cheap Cars. Settled
Some 27 complainants were offended by the television advertisement for 2 Cheap Cars, which featured a Japanese car salesman who repeatedly said ‘Ah so’ in response to questions posed by the customer. When the customer decided to buy one of the cars, the salesman says ‘Ahhhh sooold.’ Complainants said the advertisement perpetuated racist stereotypes.
While the advertiser agreed to remove the advertisement it also said it had been viewed by more than 10 Japanese people and none of them found it to be offensive in any way. Being Japanese, the directors of the company felt they should be able to express their own native culture.
2. If Stoned: Don’t Drive – NZTA. Not upheld
Some 15 complainants were offended by the television advertisement for NZTA which featured two men under the influence of drugs who are involved in a car accident. After the accident, there is a flashback to the driver smoking a bong. The complainants said the advertisement was unsuitable for children because it was screened during prime time and showed drug use.
The advertiser agreed to change the placement of the advertisement to make it less likely to be viewed by children. The complaints board said the advertisement contained an important public safety message and was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence.
3. What’s Polluting the Rivers?
– Greenpeace. Not upheld
Some 14 complainants were offended by the Greenpeace television advertisement, which claimed that New Zealand rivers are being polluted by industrial dairy farming and irrigation schemes. The complainants said the advertisement was misleading because the dairy industry is not solely responsible for the pollution of New Zealand rivers.
The advertiser said the impact of intensive dairy farming on water quality is widely documented and Greenpeace should be able to take part in a national debate on this topic. The complaints board confirmed the advertisement was advocacy advertising and the identity of the advertiser was clear. The board confirmed the advertiser’s position on environmental issues was widely known.
4. You Mean ‘Spy on My Neighbours?’ – Parallel Importers. Settled
A total of 10 complainants were offended by a Parallel Imported television advertisement for Samsung s7 cell phones and DJI Phantom drones. The advertisement included images of the drones accompanied by the voiceover, which said ‘Fly free and film your neighbours with drones.’ The complainants said this advertisement encouraged unethical and illegal behaviour, which could lead to serious breaches of privacy.
The advertiser apologised for any offence caused and withdrew the advertisement.
5. He said: She said
– Old Mout Cider. Settled
Some 10 complainants were offended by the DB Breweries television and Facebook advertisements for Old Mout Cider. The ad showed a couple having a drink in a bar. The man speaks with a French accent until the ‘voice of God’ reveals that his name is actually Stephen, not Jean Paul. ‘Stephen had been lying but, then, so had Brian’. The implication was the woman he was with had also been ‘lying’, because she was transgender. The complainants said the ad was transphobic and implied transgender people are deceptive if they do not use the name they are given at birth.
The advertiser apologised for any distress the ad caused and withdrew it.
6. Mummy, why do you only have photos of Danny on the wall? –
Canon. Not upheld
Six complainants were offended by the television advertisement for a Canon printer, which showed a girl smashing two vases and a fish bowl because her mother had photos of her brother on the wall and none of her. The complainants said the ad promoted the use of bad behaviour to get your own way.
The advertiser said the ad was light-hearted and humorous and not targeted at children. The majority of the board said the girl’s reaction was comedic hyperbole.
7. Did She Just Yell at Me?
– 2 Cheap Cars. No grounds to proceed
Five complainants were offended by the 2 Cheap Cars television ad, which featured a girl shouting out the details about a stock liquidation sale. The complainants said the ad was bad taste and irritating. One said it was bullying.
The chair of the Complaints Board said the shouting was not socially irresponsible or bullying.
8. Two Maps – Two Stories
– NZ Palestine Human Rights Campaign (billboard). Not upheld
Five complainants were offended by the billboard ad for the New Zealand Palestine Human Rights Campaign featuring two maps comparing the amount of land occupied by both Palestine and Israel in 1947 and then in 2016. The complainants said the maps conveyed a misleading impression about the true nature of land ownership in Palestine and Israel.
The complaints board noted the advertisement referred to a continuing dispute and was clearly advocating a particular point of view. In the context of advocacy advertising, the board said the ad was unlikely to mislead.
9. Too Sexy for My Burger –
Carls Jnr. Not Upheld
Four complainants were offended by the television ad for the Carls Jnr ‘Bacon 3-Ways Burger,’ which showed a woman salaciously enjoying a burger. The complainants said they found the sexual nature of the ad offensive and inappropriate.
The advertiser said the ad was aimed at ‘young hungry males’ and was classified GXC, so it wouldn’t be played during programmes intended for children under 13. The complaints board agreed the ad contained sexual innuendo but did not meet the threshold to cause serious or widespread offence.
10. Are Batteries Included?
NZ Post (email). Settled
Three complainants said the photos in the NZ Post email advertisement for the YouShop postal service were misleading.
The advertiser agreed the headphones that contain lithium-ion batteries can’t be shipped from the UK but the speaker and fitness tracking watch could be shipped from the US if they were in their original packaging. The advertiser updated its website to make these instructions clearer.
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