On Official Advertising Complaints


Blitz Magazine, May 1998

I just received my copy of Advertising Standards Canada’s Ad Complaints Report. Previously, the ASC provided only statistical information on complaints. Now, for the first time, it publishes details about complaints lodged by consumers and sustained by the ASC’s National and Regional Consumer Response Councils.

Last year, 598 complaints were received, 296 were pursued, 132 were sustained. Most complaints were about misleading pricing or product claims. The automotive industry accounted for most, there was a sharp rise in reverse sexism complaints and, for the first time, complaints about the negative portrayal of men were sustained. The most notable feature of the report was the increase in the number of advertisers revising or withdrawing ads before they were evaluated.

A few complaints caught my eye. An Alberta show retailer ran a newspaper ad featuring a woman posing behind a large cowboy hat, wearing only cowboy boots. Two people complained that it was offensive to feature the sexualized image of a woman in order to sell footwear. The panel concluded that it was indeed sexually exploitative to show a woman wearing nothing but cowboy boots in order to sell a product that was unrelated to sexuality. (Footwear has been a form of sexual communication for centuries, and Gucci can barely supply the demand for its bum-boosting, 6” spikes, but never mind…)

The panel upheld a complaint about a newspaper ad run by an Ontario automotive repair shop. The ad showed a man, from the back, wearing swimming trunks, under the headline ‘We Specialize in Rear Ends’. One Sensitive Man found that his inner child was offended and that was it for the ad.

The most amusing instance involved a national television campaign run by a food manufacturer. In the spot, a virile delivery man provokes sexual fantasies in a group of women. One complaint was received, claiming that the commercial degrades women by depicting them as slaves to their sexual desires. But the panel found that the commercial exploited men’s sexuality by objectifying the male in a purely sexual role.

This is funny, but it’s also annoying. Ads are pieces of communication, created to catch attention and sell something. Period. No one wants ads that make false claims or encourage dangerous activity but, in these ultra-competitive times, the last thing any business needs, after spending thousands on creative and production, is to have negative action taken to placate one or two people. I like the fact that Canadians are known to be clever and polite—I’d prefer that the term ‘anal-retentive’ remain out of any description of our national identity.