The Advertising Ethics Council gets hundreds of complaints a year about advertising, but only a few are deemed out of bounds.

The mobile phone ring tone advertisement promotes a puppet yelling “Silence. I kill you!” It derives from comedian Jeff Dunham’s popular act involving Achmed the Dead Terrorist. Is the ad funny? Insensitive and unethical? This is just one of the cases the Advertising Ethics Council had to deal with recently.

The Finnish Consumer Protection Act helps to regulate advertising to some extent, but the industry is largely self-regulated. Guidelines are handed down by the International Chamber of Commerce, which are followed by Finland’s Chamber through its Advertising Ethics Council. When a member of the public sees an advertisement that he believes to be unethical, he can make a complaint. In the case of Achmed the Dead Terrorist, the consumer was particularly upset because it appeared about the same time as the Kauhajoki school shooting.

 Discrimination gets attention

“We get about 150 to 200 cases a year,” says Legal Counsel Paula Paloranta. “In most cases it is clear that there is nothing wrong so we tell the consumer. About 25 to 30 times a year it is unclear. In these cases we contact the advertiser for clarification and then take the case to the Council. Only a couple are found unethical each year.”

Exactly what is “unethical” is largely determined by precedent and can vary from country to country. An ad which is perfectly normal in the Swedish culture, for instance, could be found unethical in a more conservative country.

Norms are changing. Paloranta explains that in 2001 they had no complaints whatsoever about stereotypes, but now they are becoming more common. A celebrated case in Sweden last year involved a print ad using gender roles. The Lego ad portrayed a little boy dressed in blue with a little girl dressed in pink. The boy played with stereotypical fire trucks and airplanes while the girl played with ponies and princesses. The Swedish advertising watchdog singled out this ad for being discriminatory and perpetuating gender roles.

“There have been very many cases like that in Sweden,” says Paloranta. “We have only had one in Finland, but there will probably be more. In our case we had a Christmas catalogue showing children playing. The Council thought it was okay: the girl was actively playing just like the boy. The Council decided that it was not the duty of an advertiser to turn things upside down and show girls playing with cars and boys playing with dolls, for instance. They understand that not every ad like this is okay, but this one was.”

At times, seemingly clearcut cases of discrimination are not so clear after all. Paloranta mentions a television campaign promoting traffic safety. The commercials featured only men saying how they didn’t have time to obey traffic rules. “We had about 12 or 15 men complain,” she says. “They were upset with the implication that men don’t care about how they drive. We talked to the traffic safety organisation which showed us statistics showing that a huge percentage of drunk drivers and those causing serious accidents were men. There was a clear need to change the behaviour of men and the Council said that the campaign was ethical. Even after we explained the decision we got complaints.”

Unethical ads rare

More common are complaints about sex in advertising. The television show Gossip Girl drew a complaint when it was marketed with sexy images on outdoor advertising. Clothing chain H&M draws fire annually, mostly from female consumers, with their billboard campaigns advertising lingerie. Paloranta points out that the medium used in advertising is important. Anyone, including young children, can walk by and see outdoor ads. If the ad had been in a newspaper which children wouldn’t be reading, for instance, the standards would have been different.

If an advertiser runs an unethical campaign, there is actually very little that the Council can do. “The Council has no power to do anything except give a statement,” Paloranta explains. “It can’t ban, stop or amend a campaign. In practice, most advertisers withdraw a campaign if it is still running. But most campaigns come and go very quickly so most campaigns are over before a statement is given.”

“In general, Finnish advertisers really don’t want to break the rules,” Paloranta sums up. “If it is unethical, normally it is a mistake. Unethical ads are rare. So far this year we have only had four ads found to be unethical.”

In the case of the ring tone featuring Achmed the Dead Terrorist, the advertising agency defended itself by pointing out that Dunham’s comedy act was well known and much-watched on YouTube. The puppet was not realistic or intimidating, they said, and therefore the ad should not be deemed unethical. The Council agreed.

David J. Cord
Hans Eiskonen