The billboards on our highways are under attack — from parliament and from the righteous. There’s a new morals police on patrol and they’re scouring the highways and byways looking to lodge a complaint with the Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB) or their local member.
A rise in the volume of these complaints has now caused the Attorney-General, Robert McLelland, to order a national inquiry into the regulation of billboard and outdoor advertising. The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) has been calling for such a review for years, and has welcomed the announcement. The inquiry will mark the debut of our newest House of Reps Committee, the Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs.
It’s not hard to guess what the complaints have been about. The Advanced Medical Institute’s (AMI) "Want Longer Lasting Sex?" ads have shocked religious groups. In a submission to the inquiry, the ACL complains about "the proliferation of sexualised images in public places", and calls for all outdoor advertising to be G-rated.
Why are religious individuals and communities able to punch so far above their weight in these matters? Although the ASB makes no evaluation or comment about whether a complaint is founded in religious belief, the language and logic of complaints makes it clear that it’s what motivates many. And why is the parliament so accommodating of complaints that are transparently ideological? It only takes one complaint to set off an inquiry — surely if a million people see a billboard over a given period of time, one dissenting voice should not be able to bring it down.
The ASB’s website tells the story clearly enough. A whopping 50 per cent of all complaints are for sex and nudity. Only 7 per cent are for violence — and almost none are for religious billboards. How offensive is the four by two metre message on the Gold Coast highway these days? It greets southerners as they head north with the words, "Jesus is the answer….."? To what? To my mind this sort of billboard promotes anti-intellectualism of the worst kind and, as Karl Marx might have said, it’s roadside opium. Should it be taken down? Well, no. We live in a democracy and that means embracing the right of www.jesuschrist.org.au to ply their wares. But the point is that state and federal governments don’t ban religious billboards on their property.
The most frequent justification for a complaint about AMI’s billboard is this: "How do I explain this to my kids"? Not easily, I’m sure. Asking other people to help sort out communication problems with one’s kids is one thing — but involving the resources of a parliamentary committee and considerable taxpayer dollars, is quite another. At any rate, AMI is in receivership and is being prosecuted by the ACCC — but not for its advertisting.
The antics of an American comedian in the late 1950s remind me of how absurd the fundamentalist mentality can be on these matters. Buck Henry was no fan of religious do-gooders. Under the alias of G. Clifford Prout, he took on the public persona of a morals campaigner dedicated to the enormous task of clothing naked animals around the world. He formed the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (SINA) and pushed slogans like "a nude horse is a rude horse" and "decency today means morality tomorrow". Animal nudity near highways was especially offensive to SINA because (as with billboards advertising the politics of engorgement) decent families off to the beach or a picnic could frequently encounter not only naked animals with their genitals hanging out all over the place but also those in the throes of animal ecstasy. Explaining this to children was also incredibly difficult. An appearance on the Today Show by Prout, saw the new morality quickly grow into a serious group of concerned citizens. Henry’s elaborate hoax was finally brought to an end by Walter Kronkite on the CBS News one night — not before 50,000 people had signed up.
The most worrying thing was that years after it had been exposed, the group still produced a journal for members which contained press releases and sewing patterns for pet clothing! And I have it on good authority, that a fair dinkum Australian clone of SINA called Cover Up Animals’ Rude Parts, (CARP), actually sent a submission to a federal parliamentary committee in the early 1990s complaining among other things, about disgustingness on billboards.
Billboard advertising in Australia is self-regulated by the ASB in the same way that television is ostensibly self-regulated by Free TV Australia and newspapers by the Press Council. By and large the ASB does a pretty fair job. Anyone who has tried to make a complaint about a newspaper will know that your chances of getting it upheld are between Buckleys and none, while the ASB will uphold a reasonable complaint as well as rule against a loony tune.
The real censorship of billboards happens in other ways. The advertising agencies who operate the billboards and the owners of the space that the boards are on often arbitrarily conspire to ban certain types of ads and allow others on the grounds of morality. As owners of the highways, train stations and public utilities, State and Federal governments are among the worst offenders.
If your ad has the word "sex" in it, it’s automatically banned. That doyen of tasteless but harmless horizontal pastimes, Sexpo, cannot put up a billboard on government property. No worries if you’re a weapons manufacturer or supplier to the military. The new-look Canberra airport now sports three sizable and beautifully backlit billboards for Raytheon — right under your nose at the luggage collection point. The implication is that Raytheon’s products and services are less offensive to the general population than Sexpo’s. Where are the opinion polls, the focus group results and the social research to back this policy up?
In 2009, Sexpo had their Adelaide billboard banned by the ASB because of a complaint from someone who objected to a bikini model, hands on hips and thumb hooked inside the top of her bikini bottom, in a way "that suggested she was about to pull it down". I reckon the Raytheon ads position the helicopter gunship in a way that suggests it’s about to shoot up a bunch of Palestinian refugees … but I’d never say that because its just my opinion.
The worst outcome from the current inquiry would be for the Committee to recommend that billboards and other outdoor advertising now fall under the aegis of the Australian Classification Board (ACB). Not only would this mean that the poor old taxpayer would fund yet another layer of official censorship but it would also further restrict what we can see in the sex-as-entertainment and sex-as-information areas. If the Committee were to do this and to apply the logical standard to billboards, then they would be classified using print guidelines, as they are non-moving, printed images. If applied thus, the moral’s groups would have shot themselves in both feet, the groin and the cerebellum all at once because the current Unrestricted Classification for the covers of printed matter allows a lot more sex and nudity than the ASB ais currently prepared to tolerate. Longer lasting sex and winking bikini models fit well within these guidelines.
However what is more likely, is that the ACB would set up another set of printed matter classification guidelines that apply to all outdoor ads along with a set of penalties to be enforced by already overworked state police forces. I don’t know about you but I want police picking up drunks and dangerous drivers — not contemplating whether the latest billboard for Calvin Klein underwear breaches censorship laws.
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