Queensland's State Director Wendy Francis has written an opinion piece published in Sight Magazine today on the impact of billboards and outdoor advertising on children. See here.

It was British writer Norman Douglas who said -“You can tell the ideals of a nation by its advertisements.”It rings true when you take a look outside these days and notice the content on billboards.

According to the Advertising Standards Bureau and Australian advertisers, the often sexually-explicit images and messages which can be found on billboards, bus shelters, shop windows and the sides of public transport is in line with prevailing community standards. Ads that, in a workplace would be deemed to be sexual harassment, are promoted as clever advertising in our public spaces.

Attendees at the federal inquiry into outdoor advertising held in Melbourne in the first week of April heard a very different story. The inquiry received submissions from the Salvation Army, Kids free 2b Kids, Collective Shout and the Australian Christian Lobby. The combined voice of these groups concluded with a strong attack on the advertising industry and a call for a mandatory G rating for all outdoor advertising.

So what’s the fuss about? Where does one start. Last year in Brisbane there was a billboard campaign less than five metres from the Brisbane Boys Grammar School gate for a ‘naughty bar’ which is actually a strip club. The images were explicit, very large and at head height. All complaints to the Advertising Standards Bureau were dismissed.

These complaints were followed up with the Outside Media Association and verbal agreement was given that perhaps the placement of this particular advertising campaign was in poor taste. After an unusually long advertising campaign the billboards were finally replaced and the school and the community breathed a sigh of relief. But not for long. The strip club billboard campaign has recently reappeared 400 metres down the road. A letter from the school principal was tabled at the inquiry in support of G-Rated outdoor advertising and agreeing with the view that prevailing community standards would not condone the advertising of a strip club to children.

A current billboard campaign on one of Brisbane’s busiest roads shows the back view of a nude man. He is selling a brand of natural tea. If this man were actually standing on the side of the road in this manner he would be arrested. But instead, we enlarge him and put him up on a billboard and consider it to be acceptable advertising. What message is this sending to our children?
I have not met a parent who is happy for their children to read slogans regarding erection difficulty, or to be able to identify the world’s thinnest condom, or to know which fertility clinic offers the quickest ‘route’ to get pregnant, or be told to text the word 'hard' to 1800 RAISE IT. The parents I know want to reserve their right to have some control over their children’s viewing of sexual imagery and messaging.

But it would seem that not everyone agrees with this position. The Eros foundation, which represents the adult and entertainment industry, also made a submission to the Federal Inquiry. At best it was unconvincing. At worst it was insulting. It is Eros’ view that a very small minority of strongly religious people punch well above their weight in making complaints around billboard advertising. In reference to religious people it said, “They use shrill and righteous rhetoric to drive their arguments rather than fact and logic,” and “Religious campaigns to rid the highways of ‘filth’ and ‘pornography’ often reflect cultish behaviour and attract slightly unhinged people to them.”

The Outdoor Media Association also weighed into the argument claiming it already had an unofficial pre-vetting system in place and that it does send some ads back to the advertiser before the ads are placed. It is clear this ‘unofficial’ system did not work with the Calvin Klein rape billboard and the 'have an affair’ billboard - both of which were found to breach the code and yet made it through this 'pre-vetting' system.

The Association also claimed it is in the industry's 'best interest' to act responsibly so as not to have its billboards removed. In actual fact, companies can make a lot of money from controversy and it appears that some have become adept at working the self-regulation system. When Sexpo billboards created community outrage in Ipswich last year, newspaper articles were written showing the ads as well as giving information as to when and where Sexpo was taking place, resulting in the sort of publicity money can’t buy.

To allow our children’s best interest to come second behind the mighty advertising machine is incredibly short-sighted. The call to clean up outdoor advertising is not new, but it is gaining momentum and will not be silenced. The current self-regulatory system has failed to protect the rights of children regarding early sexualisation, and research is showing that it is leading to damaging effects such as eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression. There have been decades of adverse reaction from community groups regarding inappropriate advertising, but this long-standing community dissatisfaction has been ignored and advertisers have continued to enjoy the current system, which places the onus on a wearied public to complain.

The time to clean up advertising is now. The inquiry is expected to make its recommendations to the Attorney-General in June.