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Media

Aug 20, 2010

Policing political advertising in Australia

Legal and advertising experts have slammed the Advertising Standards Bureau for refusing to act on complaints about Tony Abbott’s infamous "red arrow" campaign ad, writes Colin Cosier.

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Legal and advertising experts have slammed the Advertising Standards Bureau for refusing to act on complaints about Tony Abbott’s infamous “red arrow” campaign ad.

The national ad watchdog will not look at what it calls the “handful” of complaints it has received over the Liberal Party’ Support Real Action with Tony Abbott advertisement because it says political advertising in not part of the bureau’s remit.

“In our view it is not possible to make decisions about whether a party political advertisement breaches the Code [of Ethics] without the potential for being seen to be taking a political viewpoint,” said ASB chief executive officer Fiona Jolly.

“You’ll find that electoral advertising is subject to very, very little scrutiny,”  Jolly said.

But senior lecturer in public communication at the University of Technology Sydney Dr Robert Crawford said no part of the ASB charter states political advertisements are off-limits.

“If [the ASB] was really, fundamentally concerned about the quality of advertising, about the truthfulness … of advertising then it really should be looking at political advertising.

“Yet [the ASB] are a lobby group … and they understand that for advertising to survive … you can’t be alienating big political parties too much because they are the ones who make the broadcast rules that can ultimately affect you,” Dr Crawford said.

“The ASB doesn’t have any lobby role at all. We’re here to administer complaints made under industry codes which apply to industry ads,” Jolly said.

In March, the leader of the Australian Greens Senator Bob Brown moved to incorporate a Truth in Political Advertising Unit into the Commonwealth Electoral Act to monitor political advertising but both major political parties voted it down in the Senate.

Senator Brown said he was appalled when he saw the Liberal Party advertisement.

“This ad is yet another example of how very badly we need an independent arbiter for political advertising in Australia … If the ASB can’t make a decision, then we need someone who can,” Senator Brown said.

The ASB said it would not look at complaints about the advertisement in written responses to a complaint made by lawyer and migration agent Brynn O’Brien.

O’Brien had complained the red arrow segment in the Liberal Party advertisement vilified and discriminated against asylum seekers.

“The advertisement shows an animation with red arrows bearing the names of countries from which illegals are seemingly invading the Australian mainland,” O’Brien wrote in a letter to the ASB.

“The result is absurd. Political parties can say whatever they want in advertising regardless of how offensive, racist, s-xist, homophobic, discriminatory it is, without fear of reprimand or intervention by the ASB,”  O’Brien said.

The ASB website says: “Tell someone who cares. If you find an ad offensive lodge a complaint with us.”

“[The ASB] considers advertisements which people find offensive on the basis of: discrimination (race, nationality, s-x, age, s-xual preference, religion, disability, political belief),” the website says.

The Australian Association of National Advertisers website says the AANA Code of Ethics, which the ASB administers, covers “all advertising”.

Jolly responded to O’Brien: “We are currently updating our ‘out of scope’ information on the website and will ensure that the fact that we do not look at political advertising is clear to all.”

The Advertising Standards Board, under the ASB, considers advertising complaints made by the public. When a complaint is upheld, the advertiser is asked to remove or amend the offending advertisement.

Dr Crawford said: “They’re a bit of a toothless tiger in some ways because all it can do is recommend that advertisements not go to air.”

Dr Crawford said such action would not be effective with political advertisements because they don’t screen for very long so there is no threat to take it down.

Other bodies to deal with political advertisements include the Australian Electoral Commission, the Australian Communications and Media Authority and the television industry body FREE TV but none regulate content.

“The Advertising Standards Bureau generally deals with complaints about advertising content,” an ACMA spokesperson said.

Race discrimination commissioner Graeme Innes said any complaints of vilification and discrimination can be made to the Australian Human Rights Commission.

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