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Media advertising in public spaces: two different government responses

By Jo Coghlan - posted Tuesday, 2 August 2011

In Chinese cities like Beijing and Chongqing certain types of outdoor advertising are banned. Advertisements that promote "high-end lifestyles", particularly "foreign things" have triggered the ire of Chinese administrators. The rationale for outdoor advertising bans of certain products is that it "may trigger social unrest". The claim is that such advertisements create a "politically unhealthy climate." Violators face fines of up to AUS$4,500.

The Chinese regulator, the Beijing Municipal Administration for Industry and Commerce, requires that outdoor advertisements should avoid content that refers to "imperial-aristocratic elitism" and promotes "hedonism and worship of things foreign". The goal of the administrators is to create a "fair and harmonious" environment". The ban is in response to growing concerns among the Chinese political elite that conspicuous consumption highlights the growing gap between rich and poor.

The glorification of excess is considered contrary to Chinese culture where excessive consumption is equated to a waste of resources. The objection to "hedonism" can be understood within the remnants of the Cultural Revolution. The Beijing administration's announcement also reflects a key function of Chinese governance, the dissemination and promotion of 'Chinese' values as determined by regulators such as the Administration for Industry and Commerce.


China is not merely a socio-politico-economic entity. It is first a distinct cultural entity that is attempting to withstand Western media practices if not the consumer goods its citizens are apparently wanting. Measures such as banning outdoor advertising of certain goods, and bans on language commonly used to promote them (forbidden words like 'supreme", "royal", "luxury" or "high class", "best", "unique" or "irreplaceable") are shaped by this China-centric view.

As a recent Australian report found: no one can avoid outdoor advertising. This is what makes outdoor advertising appealing to advertisers. It cannot be turned off or put away if a consumer wishes to ignore it. The only way to avoid it, according to the Chinese, is to ban it. Outdoor advertising constitutes a specific category of advertising because of the way that it occupies public spaces and dominates civic landscape as well as targeting captive, unrestricted audiences.

Rather than the ideological concerns evident in Chinese regulations, in Australia the concerns are about the impact of increasing, cumulative and sustained exposure to images and text that contain sexual, discriminatory or violent material and to advertisements for alcohol and unhealthy foods and beverages. Because all members of society are exposed to it, and don't have a choice about viewing it, there is a domestic view that public spaces need to be reclaimed from the interests of commercial advertising.

Public spaces are for the use of all members of the community, and the right to enjoy the amenity of a space should not be compromised by an advertiser's array of socially determined inappropriate images and text. This was the rationale for the recent House of Representatives report titled Reclaiming Public Space: An inquiry into the regulation of billboard and outdoor advertising.

The terms of reference for the federal Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs was to consider community concerns about large-scale public advertising. This included examining trade practices and fair trading legislation that contain consumer protection provisions that prohibit false, misleading and deceptive advertising, as well as relevant industry codes including the Australian Association of National Advertisers' Advertiser Code of Ethics and the role of the Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB) in monitoring and compliance of outdoor advertising.

Outdoor advertising, which includes shop windows and bus shelters, make up just two per cent of all advertising in Australia, but in 2010 accounted for 20 per cent of all complaints to the ASB. Four of the 10 most complained about advertisements in 2010 were billboards. Australia's peak industry body, Outdoor Media Association, said of the 30,000 outdoor advertisements posted, just seven complaints were upheld by the Advertising Standards Board. The Standing Committee recommended modest changes for the industry, noting there were "rogue elements" in the industry that had failed to heed to industry peer pressure and compliance.


The Committee found the self-regulatory system lacking, and recommended that the Attorney-General's Department impose a self-funded co-regulatory system on advertising with government input into advertising codes of practice. The Attorney General's Department will be required to conduct five-yearly reviews of the advertising regulatory system.

Claire Hughes of the Cancer Council of NSW, which made a submission on behalf of the Coalition on Food Advertising to Children, said the Committee did not go far enough in terms of setting a timetable for reform or reining in the power of advertisers over the ABS. Hughes argued the government missed an opportunity to further regulate the industry and demand billboards only be used for things like public health messages or at least advertising that conforms to community standards. Yet, as the Committee reported, the definition of 'community standards' is a contentious issue, given the wide range of views held by all members of society. It urged more social research into community attitudes about outdoor advertising standards and measures to increase the public's confidence in decisions about advertising that purport to reflect community norms.

Moreover, the Committee recommended that the advertising self-regulatory system adopt international best practice measures such as the provision of independent advice to advertisers on their advertising content prior to release, and the establishment of a monitoring role to promote high levels of compliance with the voluntary advertising codes. Recommendations to advertising industry bodies suggested compliance with self-regulation within the next three years or the Australian government will institute punitive regulatory measures.

I suppose it's a case of 'watch this space'. If you are in Australia it is probably a case of seeing the same billboards as you travel to work. In China, it is more likely the billboard will have been changed.

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About the Author

Jo Coghlan is a lecturer in the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Southern Cross University.

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