Watch your language!

Australia can be pretty relaxed when it comes to language in advertising. Nearly everyone remembers the iconic ‘where the bloody hell are you?’ Tourism Australia ad, or the baby saying ‘bugger’ in the Toyota commercial. However, there is a line in the sand about what language is and isn’t appropriate to use in advertising.

Section 2.5 of the AANA Code of Ethics (the Code) states that strong or obscene language shall be avoided. For example, the ‘F’ and ‘C’ words, when used in full, will most likely never be considered appropriate. Using these will usually result in an ad receiving complaints and being upheld by the Advertising Standards Board (the Board). Ads which beep out the ‘F’ word or use words such as ‘friggen’ are generally OK.

Even when language isn’t ‘strong or obscene’, the Code requires it to still be appropriate. There are some words and phrases where the appropriateness depends on more than just the word being used. For example, last month two ads were considered which used the word ‘shit’. One was dismissed and one was upheld. Both were ads for charities, one was on radio and the other online.

Complaints against the internet ad were dismissed by the Board.  The advertisement focused on men’s mental health issues, and was targeted through YouTube at males aged 25-54. While this doesn’t exclude the possibility that a child could view the ad, it makes it less likely. The Board considered that most members of the community would not consider the use of the word “shit” in the context of an important message promoting services to assist members of the community in dealing with anxiety, stress or other mental health concerns, as strong or obscene language.

There were two determining factors in the radio ad being upheld. The first was the medium. Radio advertising, especially during school pick up and drop off times, will be heard by children and therefore needs to be appropriate for children to hear. Using explicit language is less acceptable in radio advertisements than in TV timeslots with M+ ratings, or those online. The second factor was the amount of times the word ‘shit’ was used in the advertisement. The Board found that the repeated use of the word ‘shit’ throughout the ad increased its overall effect.

So how can you tell what language will be considered appropriate in an advertisement? There are three key factors to consider around the use of language in an ad:

  • Who is the likely audience of an ad? – this is not the target audience, this is anyone who might view/hear the ad. If the ad is likely to be seen or heard by children it must be appropriate for children.
  • Is the language aggressive? – even mild language may be upheld by the Board if used in a manner which is aggressive towards a person or group of people
  • Is the language used repeatedly and emphasised? – a word used once in an appropriate way may be considered fine by the Board, but when repeated throughout the advertisement may increase the effect of the word.

For more information on the use of language in advertising, read our issues page.

3 comment

  • Ruth - 12 August 2020 - 9:33pm

    I agree with Raymond totally disgusted that not only an adult use the swear words but a child followed suit. What was the ad campaign thinking? code of conduct where?

  • Ad Standards - 21 July 2020 - 8:54am

    Hi Raymond, thanks for your message. If you have a concern about the content of an ad, you can easily lodge a complaint through our website - adstandards.com.au/lodge-complaint

  • Raymond Keenan - 21 July 2020 - 6:29am

    The use of swear words by children, such as the "bloody hell" by a young girl in the Plantation Homes advertisement, is encouraging children to use such language. It is hard for a parent to tell the children that bad language is unacceptable, when the children have seen it used by a child on television! This use of the phrase is entirely different to the adult woman saying "Where the bloody hell are you?" On a tourist ad.

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