This week’s announcement by the Advertising Standards Board that the Advanced Medical Institute’s “Want Longer Lasting S-x?” billboards are to be removed will do little to clarify the ongoing debate about industry self-regulation of advertising.

The ASB had previously dismissed hundreds of complaints about the ad, finding that it did not breach the Australian Association of National Advertisers’ Code of Ethics. But at its most recent meeting, having taken the extraordinary step of re-opening the file, the ASB decided that “with the shift in community standards, the content of the billboard was no longer acceptable”.

The decision has been welcomed by some, derided by others and misunderstood by many, as the 90 comments on the ABC News site illustrate all too well.

The ASB’s opaquely-worded media release doesn’t identify the “shift” in community standards it’s referring to and how it detected that shift. Rather, it refers to the s-xualisation “debate” as having “crystallised community concern about the unsolicited exposure of children to advertisements dealing with s-xuality”.

It seems highly likely that the ASB’s form reversal was actually precipitated by the recent report of the Senate enquiry into the s-xualisation of children, which recommended that the ASB “rigorously apply standards for billboards and outdoor advertising to more closely reflect community concern about the appropriateness of s-xually explicit material”.

There’s no mention of the Senate enquiry in the ASB’s release, but there is a line that adds further to the confusion, when it refers to “increased placements… its size, bold colours” having made the ad “confronting to a large section of the community”. This leaves open the possibility that an ad might not breach the Code if served up in small doses but may be found offensive in larger quantities.

And perhaps that’s what makes the ASB’s about-face in some ways more disturbing than the ads. To paraphrase AMI’s message, it’s not about the outcome, it’s about the process, and the process here remains unclear. Neither the ad nor the Code has changed, and with no specific evidence that community standards have “shifted” (only a suggestion they have “crystallised”), we are left to conclude that the only change anywhere has been a slight softening of the ASB’s previously firm position.

Still, as recently as May 2008, the ASB dismissed numerous complaints about a series of AMI radio ads played at all hours of the day featuring “Quick Willy”. The ads include all the obvious Benny Hill-style lines, including “Is that a pistol in your pocket?”, “I ain’t letting anyone touch my pistol”, and “Your quick-shootin’ days are over”, together with pistol-shot sound FX.

Hilarious, yes, but nowhere near as funny as the Board’s finding that “the use (of) double meaning in the advertisement’s execution meant that children listening to the advertisement would consider it to be a silly story about a cowboy…”. It will be interesting to see whether Quick Willy gets his come-uppance at a future Board meeting.

For its part, AMI has indicated it will comply with the ASB’s determination on the billboards, but it has issued a self-serving media release claiming that the ASB “says the word ‘s-x’ cannot be used in any of the company’s billboard advertising”.

This does not appear to be an accurate reflection of the ASB’s ruling and has simply fuelled further misunderstanding. The Board’s own media release says only that it has determined that the phrase “Want longer lasting s-x?” is “a blatant message about a s-xual act” and hence not acceptable… well at least, no longer acceptable.

That should mean that “s-x” is still OK… although how long that will last is anyone’s guess.