Australian national advertising regulator, Ad Standards, reveals the most complained about ads of 2023

15 January 2024

Ad Standards logo

Australia’s advertising regulator, Ad Standards, has once again revealed the most complained about ads of the year, shedding light on the importance of advertisements complying with ever-evolving community standards.

Last year the ads regulator received a 25% increase in ad complaints, with over 3,500 complaints submitted in 2023, compared to the 2601 complaints of the previous year.

The main concerns audiences had towards these ads were around the sexual appeal and violence featured in the ads, as well as complaints that they demonstrated behaviour contrary to community health and safety standards.

Although none of the ads violated the rules, ad standards upheld 70 complaints, and advertisers removed an additional 30 ads once made aware of the complaints.

The Top 5 Most Complained About Ads in 2023

1. WC Savage – Billboard

Claiming the top spot as the most complained ad of 2023 - this ad features a woman in a bikini alongside an OnlyFans logo and a QR code directly linking to an OnlyFans Account.

This billboard received 350 complaints. The majority held the position that the ad was inappropriate, sexually explicit, objectifies women, and invites young people to visit an adult website. A petition on amassed over 6.5k signatures calling for the "porn billboard" to be pulled down.

The panel examined the complaints, while acknowledging the sexual imagery, dismissed that the ad violated advertising standards.

What is the takeaway?

Despite the dismissal, this ad is a clear example of the negative publicity that risky advertisements can attract.

Read Ads Standards Case Report

2. Red Rooster – TV ad

This TV ad shows a young male skateboarder stealing chicken from other skateboarders at a skatepark.

Ads Standards received 214 complaints for this ad, with some concerns that the ad encouraged theft, youth crime and immoral behaviour.

The advertiser defended the ad, stating it employed "tongue-in-cheek" humour, exaggerated for comedic effect. The panel acknowledged that while the act of taking food may be seen as condoning inappropriate behaviour, the ad merely depicted a "practical joke".

What is the takeaway?

Advertisers should pay close attention to how they convey their humour and ensure they do not inadvertently condone illegal or inappropriate behaviour.

Read the Ad Standards Case Report

3. Mars Wrigley Australia – TV ad

This gum ad showing two women leaning over to kiss each other attracted 126 complaints, with the majority expressing concerns about the potential impact on a younger audience, attributed to perceived issues of consent, the portrayal of a same-sex kiss, and overtly sexual content.

Mars Wrigley Australia defended the ad, responding that the content was not targeted at children and emphasised their stance on embracing diversity.

The panel dismissed the complaints, finding that the kiss was not overtly sexual and there was no breach of Section 2.4 of the Code, which calls for sensitivity in the treatment of sex, sexuality and nudity within advertisements.

What is the takeaway?

These complaints highlight concerns surrounding depictions of diversity in the Australian community, but it is worth noting such advertisements also garner significant support.

Read the Ads Standards Case Report

4. Lovehoney – Billboard

A promotional campaign for sex toys featuring an image of a hand holding a vibrator drew 99 complaints.

Complaints revolved around the explicit nature of the content, seen as pushing the boundaries of acceptable public advertising.

The panel found that the ad did not breach Section 2.4 of the Code as the image was discreet, did not portray nudity or sex and was therefore not overtly sexual.

What is the takeaway?

This clash between intimate content and societal norms highlighted the delicate balance advertisers must strike between promoting products and maintaining sensitivity and appropriateness in their visuals.

Read the Ads Standards Case Report

5. Activision Blizzard Pty Ltd – Billboard

This billboard advertisement for the video game Diablo IV, showcasing a picture of a demon accompanied by the phrase "Welcome to hell", sparked complaints that the ad portrayed violence and may be offensive to religious audiences due to its dark imagery.

The panel dismissed the complaint, commenting that there was nothing in the advertisement that alluded to hatred or humiliation of religion and that there was no portrayal of violence.

This complaint underscores the importance of considering the potential psychological impact and sensitivities of the public when crafting and displaying advertisements with eerie or disturbing imagery.

What is the takeaway?

Advertisers are urged to be mindful of the language used and the potential viewers.

Read the Ads Standard Case Report

Key takeaways

While the above advertisements were deemed compliant with the Code, it is advisable for brands to consider the overall intention of the ad campaign they are running. In some cases, it may be best to avoid attracting negative attention. Understanding your intended consumer may not always be the only audience for your ads is also key to avoiding potential complaints directed at the advertising regulator.

In other cases attracting attention in all forms might suit the campaign - known as shock or outrage advertising, provided the ad remains compliant with all legal and ad standards requirements.

For more information, you can read the full press release at the Ads Standards website.

What can you do to remain Ads Standards compliant?

For many businesses, hiring an expert in promotional law internally is not possible. In these cases, it might be best to proactively partner with a team of experts, such as Plexus, to navigate your advertising compliance requirements in the evolving landscape of responsible advertising.

Spend your time on strategy, not advertising compliance

By combining holistic advertising legal advice with world-class technology, Plexus has helped businesses launch Marketing teams of all sizes launch successful and compliant advertising campaigns for almost a decade.


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