Australia: Advertising standards board determinations – when does violence and bad language go too far?

Last Updated: 16 September 2013
Article by Laura Hartley and Erin McGushin

Looking at trends in determinations made by the Advertising Standard Board (ASB) can give advertisers an understanding of how to prevent a negative determination being made against them and the subsequent negative publicity that results. In our last article on Advertising Standards Board Determinations, we looked at the use of sexual content in advertising and when an advertisement may be considered discriminatory. In this article, we explore ASB determinations in the context of violence, health and safety and bad language for the first half of 2013.

What Does the AANA Code of Ethics (Code) Say About Violence or Health and Safety?

The Code provides that advertising or marketing communications:

  • shall not present or portray violence unless it is justifiable in the context of the product or service advertised.
  • shall not depict material contrary to Prevailing Community Standards on health and safety.

Below are points to take on board if your advertisement features violence or touches on health and safety.

A complaint is more likely to be upheld if the use of violence is overly graphic or realistic and if the reaction of the victim is not positive

The ASB upheld complaints about a bus poster for graphic design company RJ Graphics1 which featured an image of a man with glasses on being punched in the face alongside the tagline "Design for impact!". The ASB considered that whilst the presentation was of a slapstick nature, this was overridden by the fact that the punch was realistic and the man's reaction was not positive. Further, the man's attire could be interpreted as "geeky" and a likely interpretation of the ad was that it is acceptable to punch someone based on their appearance. It was therefore found to be in breach of the Code. This determination was contrasted with a previous ASB decision to dismiss complaints about an advertisement featuring a man being slapped in the face with a fish, as here it considered the ad depicted an unreal situation and the man's reaction was positive.


An ad involving a depiction of an unrealistic situation is more likely to have complaints dismissed. Advertisers should also consider whether the advertisement encourages discrimination through its presentation of the victim (and perpetrator).

If Violence is Being Used in an Advertisement, it Should be Relevant to the Product Advertised
In the complaint against RJ Graphics, the ASB also took into account that the depiction of a man being punched was not relevant to the product advertised.


Avoid use of gratuitous violence in your advertisements.

Depictions of suicide are not appropriate

An advertisement for the video game "Dead Island Riptide"2 featured animated imagery involving two characters, under attack by zombies, deliberately causing an explosion leading to their deaths, and also featured a figure hanging by a noose from a palm tree. The ASB found the advertisement to be in breach of the Code. It noted that the depictions were intended to be viewed in the context of the video game advertised, there was a fantasy content and stylised nature to the advertisement and the advertisement was aimed at a mature audience. However, it considered the issue of suicide is a depiction of violence which is not justifiable even in the context of an advertisement for a computer game aimed at adults.


The use of suicide in an advertisement will most likely be in breach of the Code.

The ASB will consider the location of an advertisement featuring violence and will take Into account community concerns

In upholding the complaint against RJ Graphics, the ASB noted that the size and placement of the advertisement on a bus travelling around Sydney increased the impact and meant it was likely to be viewed by children. The ASB also acknowledged the concerns regarding the use of a violent image in an area of the city where actual violence was a real and recent issue.

In finding the "Dead Island Riptide" advertisement contrary to prevailing community standards on health and safety, the ASB discussed that the issue of suicide is a very significant community concern, and the use of images strongly suggestive of suicide is not appropriate in the context of a television advertisement for a computer game.


In determining complaints, the ASB will take into account whether the matter is one of community concern, including taking into account current affairs. The placement of advertisements featuring violence in prominent places viewable by children increases the likelihood of a complaint being upheld.

Scenes depicting clearly fantastical situations are not generally considered contrary to prevailing community standards on health and safety

A Schweppes advertisement3 featuring people magically tumbling through various landscapes and into a lagoon was found to have a clearly fantastical element and was allowed. Likewise an advertisement for Lipton Ice Tea,4 depicting people socialising, playing cards and dancing at the bottom of a pool, was held to be clearly of a fantasy nature, despite the fact that people were depicted as being able to breathe under water without assistance.

The ASB also considered that an advertisement for Kellogg's Just Right5 featuring an actor moving seamlessly through iconic Australian settings, feeding a crocodile before diving into the water and being immediately found swimming at the Barrier Reef before emerging at Circular Quay, was clearly a fantasy sequence and did not encourage people to dive into water containing crocodiles.


Fantasy sequences and unrealistic situations will not likely be found to encourage behaviour contrary to health and safety.

What Does the Code Say About Bad Language?

The Code provides that advertising or marketing communications shall only use language which is appropriate in the circumstances (including appropriate for the relevant audience and medium). Strong or obscene language shall be avoided.

There have been recent determinations regarding the use of bad language in acronyms.

Certain acronyms may be found in breach whilst others may not

Complaints were made about the use of offensive language in an in-store window promotion for Jay Jays6, which featured the headlines "OMG" and "OMFG". The ASB agreed the term "OMG" could be considered offensive and blasphemous for those of the Christian faith. However the ASB considered that the content was not aggressive, threatening or demeaning, it was an acronym commonly used by older and younger generations, it was not strong or obscene and the use was not inappropriate in this instance.

In contrast, the ASB considered that whilst the term "OMFG" is likely to be used frequently by the target audience, was used in a manner consistent with its colloquial usage and was not threatening or hostile, the fact that people use the term does not negate the fact the association of the words "fucking God" would be considered strong and obscene by many in the community. The term was found to be blasphemous and inappropriate in the circumstances.

Prominently placed and irrelevant use of bad language is not a good idea

The ASB considered the term "OMFG" was positioned so as to be easily viewed by a large audience likely to include children and there was no relevance between the use of the term and a sale where other words would achieve the same effect.


Interestingly this decision is in contrast with previous determinations of the ASB, where complaints have been dismissed involving use of the words "WTF", "OMG", "OMFG" and "LMFAO" in television advertising, where "WTF" appeared on a billboard or on outdoor advertising and where it was argued "WTF" on a poster and also in a television advertisement referred to another acronym.

It appears the ASB is shifting its opinion on use of the acronyms which reference profane language and caution should be taken in their use, especially in circumstances where there is no argument that the acronym has an alternative interpretation.


1ASB Case Number 0496/12, date 16 January 2013
2ASB Case Number 0125/13, date 1 May 2013
3ASB Case Number 0077/13, date 13 March 2013
4ASB Case Number 0064/13, date 13 March 2013
5ASB Case Number 0066/13, date 13 March 2013
6ASB Case Number 0184/13, date 12 June 2013

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Laura Hartley
Erin McGushin
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