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Pop CultureMay 31, 2024

From boy scouts to the ‘bugger’ dog: A brief history of ad complaints in New Zealand

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Featuring dangerous driving in an Austin Mini, line dancers vs the Open Polytechnic and the many misdemeanours of Hell Pizza.

For as long as there have been ads in New Zealand, there have been people complaining about them. Fifty and a bit years ago, a lightning rod for those complaints was established in the form of the Advertising Standards Authority. 

The Committee of Advertising Practice, as it was known back in 1973, was set up with the goal of “ensuring advertising was socially responsible, truthful, and not misleading,” says ASA chief executive Hilary Souter. And while both advertising and society have changed a lot in the last 50 years, that goal remains pretty much the same today.

Back in the early ’70s, controversial ad fodder included things like dangerous driving, smoking, “slimming” and the depiction of bank notes. These days, meanwhile, “stereotyping and advocacy issues” account for an increasing number of complaints.

Released this week, the ASA’s 2023 Annual Report includes a look back over its first half-century, revealing the top five most complained-about New Zealand ads of all time. Yes, the Toyota “bugger” ad is in there, but it’s only number five. We’ll get to that list soon, but first, some other facts, figures and milestone complaints.

By the numbers

The ASA has received over 25,000 complaints in its lifetime, with 98% of those complaints in the last 33 years. The highest number of complaints received in a calendar year was 1557 in 2006, thanks largely to the provocateurs in the Hell Pizza marketing department.

In 2023, 1086 complaints were received about 313 different ads. Of those, 130 went to the Complaints Board for review, resulting in 108 of them being removed or amended. 

Digital overtook television as the most complained-about medium in 2021. In 2023, 39% of all complained-about ads were digital (including social media, which accounted for more than half), ahead of television (32%), out of home (billboards etc, 12%) and radio (8%). 

Just under half of all complaints in 2023 were about an ad being misleading, while “social responsibility” and “taste and decency” accounted for around a quarter each. 

The first complaints

The first specific ad the ASA could find mentioned in its records is from 1976, and featured “an Austin Mini being driven in a dangerous manner”. The ad was withdrawn.

The first formally recorded decisions were made in 1980. In one, the Scouts complained that a TV commercial for KFC depicted a Scout leader and Scout group in a way that was “harmful to the image of the scouting movement”. The situation was “amicably resolved” as the ad had already ended its run anyway.

In another from 1980, a group of concerned citizens from the same street in the Wellington suburb of Ngaio complained that a TV commercial for multi-bank credit card “Bankcard” was “both sexist and demeaning” in the way it ascribed different types of pens to different occupational statuses. This ad was found not to infringe any of the advertising codes. 

(Neither of these ads appear to be available online – if you can find them please tell us.)

The first online complaint

The first internet ad to cross the ASA’s desk was a “deal of the week” advertised on the Ansett New Zealand website 1997. The complainant claimed the “Christchurch fly-drive package” was misleading because it didn’t state anywhere that the listed rate was for a three-day car hire only. (Sorry! Not all ASA complaints feature swearing dogs or edgy jokes about Jesus.) Ansett acknowledged it should have been clearer and said it wouldn’t do it again, which satisfied the ASA’s founding principle of self-regulation. 

The most complained-about ads in New Zealand… ever

5. Toyota ‘Bugger’ TV commercial, 1999

With 120 complaints (and, in a rarity for the ASA, five letters of support), this is New Zealand’s most complained-about TV ad of all time – but it’s only good for number five on the overall list, beaten out by some heavy hitting billboards, direct mail and radio promotions. 

“What I objected to was, from memory, that the entire script consisted of the word ‘bugger’,” wrote one of those 120 complainants. “I object on the grounds that bugger is a swear word and I would no more like to hear sh-t, f-ck or p-ss used in a similar manner.”

In a landmark decision, the board decided not to uphold the complaints, ruling that in the humorous context of the ad, “bugger” was “unlikely to cause serious and widespread offence”. 

Read more: When ‘bugger’ took New Zealand by storm

4. Waves billboard, 2018

A pre-Covid anti-vaccination billboard showing a man holding a baby with the question, “If you knew the ingredients in a vaccine, would you RISK it?” lasted just a day before being taken down in 2018, but not before it had generated 146 complaints to the ASA. Among complainants’ concerns were that the ad, positioned near Middlemore Hospital, was “not socially responsible” and “exploited fear in vulnerable audiences”. 

The board upheld the complaints, and a subsequent appeal from the advertiser was dismissed. The director of the billboard company told Stuff they had been “a bit naïve” about the ad and would “tread a bit carefully” in future.

3. Hell Pizza hot cross buns billboard, 2011

The long history of Hell Pizza attracting ASA complaints is a story for another day – the ASA has issued 95 decisions about Hell ads dating back to 2005. (That’s a lot, but Hell is actually small fry compared to a handful of other major brands – Spark and One NZ (Vodafone), for example, have been the subject of twice as many ASA rulings since 2015.)

In this particular chapter, 178 people complained about a billboard promoting the chain’s limited edition hot cross buns with the words: “For a limited time. A bit like Jesus.” Complainants said this constituted “spiritual abuse”, was “grossly offensive” and “made a mockery of the Christian faith.” The ASA board disagreed, saying that while provocative there was a degree of “black humour” which meant it landed short of the benchmark for serious or widespread offence.

2. Open Polytechnic radio ad, 1997

For nearly 10 years the most complained-about ad in New Zealand history was a radio ad for the Open Polytechnic that made fun of line dancers. The offending section of the script read: “The brain is the most important organ in your body. Why, without a brain, you’d be nothing worse than an oversized paperweight, or worse still, a country line dancer!”

The country line dancing community took umbrage at this slight in a big way, with a petition of 550 people saying they do-si-don’t want to hear this ad ever again. “I don’t appreciate being stopped in the supermarket by friends and told that I am being labelled brain dead by a radio station,” wrote one line dancer, who worried that the ad was peer pressuring young people to abandon country music “in favour of RAP and heavy metal music with all the connotations of violence and nihilism that go with them”.

In response, advertising agency Red Rocks apologised to the complainant while also saying the complaint was “a sad reflection of a society that is so politically correct it can’t laugh at itself”. The advertiser ultimately withdrew the ad and the complaint was marked resolved.

1. Hell Pizza condom mailer, 2006

What would you do if Hell Pizza sent you a condom in the mail? This is the situation 170,000 New Zealand households were presented with in 2006 as the chain promoted its “Lust” pizza. The condom was delivered in a “cardboard wallet” which also contained “instructions for use, the Hell Pizza logo and phrase, ‘Our pizza for meat lovers!’”  

While some are likely to have used their condom to practise safe sex, 685 used theirs as the basis for a complaint to the ASA. “I object to people thinking they can put condoms in our letterbox as a way to promote their business,” wrote one complainant. “Any child can open the box [and] take out these condoms and play with them … The package also gave full instructions ‘how to use the condom’ in case some young person wanted to ‘experiment’! It shows a lack of taste and is irresponsible.”

Hell submitted a long response positioning themselves as public health champions, claiming the ad was in fact drawing attention to New Zealand’s high rate of sexually transmitted disease. “Dare we say it, it may be that the ‘cheeky kid’ is growing up and becoming aware that it has an opportunity to move beyond simply being a highly successful convenience food brand,” they wrote. 

The board upheld the complaint, declaring the ad had not been placed with a due sense of social responsibility. Sending unsolicited condoms to promote a pizza was officially deemed “likely to cause serious and widespread offence in a number of communities.”

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