According to the advertising industry’s self-governing body, Ad Standards, the below ads attracted the highest number of complaints throughout the calendar year — although even some of the most hated still only attracted dozens of complaints, rather than hundreds or thousands.
Sportsbet was the only brand to have two separate advertisements make the top 10.
“Sex and nudity, and discrimination or vilification are consistently some of the most complained about issues. This year also shows increased community concern about ads with violence or content which is exploitative or degrading,” Ad Standards CEO Fiona Jolly said.
10. Downtown Brooklyn
Number of complaints: 29
The eatery attracted criticism for its social media and online ad showcasing one of its dessert items topped with chocolate and peanut butter, which included the lines “get those EpiPens ready” and “it sure screams, get me to the hospital ASAP”.
Consumers complained that the ad trivialised a serious medical condition — being nut allergies and anaphylaxis — and promoted irresponsible behaviour.
Number of complaints: 31
It wasn’t so much the imitation of a women’s beauty pageant that annoyed consumers so much as the contestant’s line, “I personally believe that apps such as Sportsbet that make it easier for people to use because... Apps”, which elicits applause from other contestants, followed by a voice-over stating, “The new iPhone app from Sportsbet, it’s foolproof”.
Complaints decried the ad as being sexist, misogynistic and discriminatory by portraying the women as “dumb”.
Sportsbet contested that the ad was meant to be satirical in nature, but Ad Standards upheld the complaints, and said it was to be discontinued from 29 September.
8. Roadshow Films
Number of complaints: 40
This one was bound to cause controversy: a billboard promoting the clown in the horror film IT 2. It appeared in two versions — one with lines covering the clown’s eyes and mouth, and another featuring just the eyes.
“It’s way too scary — huge white clown face with blood running down — my kids pointed and were scared,” said one complainant.
“The advertisement is for a movie rated MA15+. The image is confronting and not appropriate for individuals under the age of 15,” another said.
Roadshow claimed it had not breached any standards and had taken caution “to avoid placements within 300m of schools”.
But Ad Standards upheld the complaints against both versions of the billboard, by which time Roadshow had removed the ads after the campaign ended.
7. Pretty Little Thing
Number of complaints: 58
Models in bikinis posing with vehicles have often been a source of complaints, and so was the case for clothes retailer Pretty Little Things.
The TV ad was deemed “almost pornographic” by multiple complainants and exploitative or degrading to women.
Ad Standards dismissed the complaints, suggesting that “the advertisement did treat sex, sexuality and nudity with sensitivity to the relevant audience”.
Number of complaints: 69
This one too attracted complaints about sex and nudity, as well as discrimination and degradation of the models, but instead involved the portrayal of men.
The free-to-air TV commercial featured a voice-over stating “As our planet heats up, mankind is suffering, suffering in his jocks”, as a piece of heat-seeking equipment is positioned in front of the crotch of a man wearing only a towel (main image).
It goes on to show suggestive images including a chef cooking two meatballs and a welder welding two metal balls, before showing a man in a locker room in his underwear.
Complainants objected to the portrayal of race, the “crass” nature of the advertisement, and that men were being portrayed in a derogatory fashion. Others contested that the ad was trivialising the issue of climate change.
“I have a sense of humour, but I also quickly identify gender double standards in our society and there is absolutely no way this ad would be deemed acceptable with gender roles reverse[d],” said one.
Hanes defended its so-called “Fight Glo-BALL Warming” campaign, calling it “a tongue-in-cheek pun that adopts the fun and playful tone of Bonds advertising to convey a very real problem afflicting men”, being their physical comfort and testicular health.
In another lengthy decision, Ad Standards deemed the ad was not in breach of advertising guidelines and dismissed the complaints.
5. Love Honey
Number of complaints: 130
Using sex to sell the sex toys and other adult material, along with a voice-over stating “who doesn’t want better sex” was always bound to attract criticism. But for a free-to-air TV commercial, some Aussies expressed offence at “the realistic nature of the sex being shown” and suggested the imagery used was “too graphic”.
However, Love Honey contested that the ad did not contain “sexual content or explicit images”, nor did it have “full nudity or product descriptions”.
“We believe it communicates the products and services from Love Honey with sensitivity and humour,” it said.
4. Ultra Tune
Number of complaints: 161
Ultra Tune attracted criticism early in the year for its free-to-air ad featuring Charlie Sheen and Warwick Capper, as well as women in the water beside a boat after crashing their convertible into the water beside it. Hollywood actor Sheen then claims he is “winning” when the women come out of the water and onto the boat while he is out of towels.
It attracted criticism of degrading, objectifying and exploiting of women, while the vehicular crash also elicited concerns about unsafe behaviour.
Ad Standards initially dismissed the complaints, but they were then upheld following a formal appeal.
Ultra Tune said at the time that it was “disappointed in the panel decision”, but that it would “be modifying the advertisement” in light of the determination.
3. Universal Pictures
Number of complaints: 244
Like the Ultra Tune ad, Universal’s television ad for the horror movie Us also made waves in the first part of the year.
It featured scenes in which a family in a home are being terrorised by a man in a mask, and voice-overs from the movie, in including the mother’s voice saying, “They won’t stop until they kill us, or we kill them.”
The violence, whether portrayed or alluded to, was the source of the complaints.
Ad Standards noted that the film had an MA15+ rating, which can be advertised at any time of day except during P and C rated programs which are specifically aimed at children. To this end, the advertising body dismissed the complaints.
Number of complaints: 366
It was a way off claiming top spot, but Sportsbet still claimed second spot in the most complained about ads of 2019 with a separate TV commercial for its iPhone app.
In this ad, protesters are seen lying on the ground while a voice-over states “Sportsbet’s new iPhone app is so easy even the permanently offended can claim a winner winner chicken... oh sorry, vegan-based dinner”.
Protesters are also seen in other portrayals, including a man stating “Yeah, piece of...” while a toilet is heard to flush.
Complaints varied from the portrayal of veganism and activists to “the stereotyping of Nigerians as scammers”.
In its rebuttal, Sportsbet said it “regrets if the nature of the advertisement was misconstrued or considered by the complainants to be ‘distasteful’. However, Sportsbet has taken care in delivering the ‘foolproof’ message throughout the advertisement to playfully communicate the ease of using Sportsbet’s new app.”
Ad Standards ultimately dismissed the complaints, finding it had not breached industry standards.
1. And the ‘winner’ of the most complained about advertisement in Australia in 2019 went to... Libra
Number of complaints: 738
With double the number of complaints of the second-ranked ad, Asaleo Care — owner of the Libra brand of women’s hygiene products — clearly attracted the most controversy this year.
The complaints related to two versions of the same free-to-air television commercial featuring women and girls in various scenarios with a pad and/or red liquid imitating blood. They concluded with the words “Periods are normal. Showing them should be too” against a red background.
The portrayal of women’s periods clearly hit a nerve with many viewers, who lodged complaints on various grounds including exploitative of degrading content, sex/sexuality/nudity, violence and even discrimination.
Complainants suggested the ad was “distasteful and unnecessary”, “extremely offensive”, “wrong at any time of day” and “inappropriate”.
Libra hit back against the complaints, showing positive feedback it had received about raising awareness of a subject often deemed taboo in the public arena.
In a lengthy 23-page determination, Ad Standards found in favour of Libra and dismissed all of the complaints.