Opinion: Community standards, will they be the death of us?

Opinion: Community standards, will they be the death of us?
B&T Magazine
Edited by B&T Magazine

Anne Gately has had a career of over 30 years in advertising and marketing and is author of SUNBURNT. A memoir of sun, surf and skin cancer. She is a stage IV melanoma survivor and is passionate about leveraging the power of advertising, media and sport to redefine Australia’s relationship with the sun.

When I was growing up, I’d often employ the tactic of social proof to try and persuade my Mum to let me go somewhere, I’d argue that everyone else was going, and that should be a good enough reason for her to allow me to go too. I became familiar with her standard reply ‘if everyone else was jumping off a cliff would you do that too?’

Right now, that’s exactly what’s happening when it comes to how community standards are being applied to the issue of sun exposure in advertising. We are lemmings, following each other over that cliff without understanding the dangers we are promoting.

Part of the purpose of the advertising code of ethics is an ‘obligation to avoid harm to the consumer and society’.

Let’s look at that in the context of being exposed to the sun and the UV rays it delivers. The International Agency on Research in Cancer (IARC) has determined that solar UV radiation is a grade 1 carcinogen. To be very clear, that means that exposure to UV radiation has been proven to cause cancer. UV radiation’s cancer-causing properties are placed in the same category as that of asbestos and tobacco. So being exposed to sunlight when the UV index is above 3, without adequate protection, is inherently unsafe.

To be fully protected from the harmful effects of UV radiation, Cancer Council Australia recommends multiple forms of protection – slip on sun protective clothing, slop on sunscreen, slap on a hat, seek shade and slide on some sunglasses.

This is the safety standard.

In May 2023, an Uber Eats ad featuring Kris and Kendall Jenner aired. There was a scene of a very pale skinned couple sunbaking at the beach using Uber Eats to order sunscreen. Granted, the duration of the scene was short, but it was obvious that the setup was a beach scene with the couple sunbaking. They were lying in their swimming costumes, without hats or sunglasses and in the full glare of the sun. And the scene was being played for laughs as the couple changed their order from SPF30 to SPF50 during the ad.

I lodged a complaint through the Ad Standards process, arguing that showing someone in the act of sunbaking was in breach of the code due to UV radiation being a grade 1 carcinogen as determined by the IARC. My complaint was dismissed as follows:

‘The Panel considered that while it would be preferable to show every beach goer wearing hats and shirts and sitting beneath umbrellas it is not this advertiser’s role to promote the sun safe message and a lack of such protection is not itself a depiction of unsafe behaviour.’

Well actually, it is. Not using sun protection and sitting in the sun is the very definition of unsafe behaviour.

More recently in March 2024, I lodged another complaint with Ad Standards about a Specsavers ad which showed a young woman sunbaking at the beach. I expressed the same concerns for safety that I had detailed in the Uber Eats complaint. This time, the complaint didn’t even get to the panel, the Chair determined ‘it is unlikely that the broader community would share the same interpretation of the advertisement.’

Here is the crux of the problem.

The Code of Ethics has an overriding caveat that states ‘Advertising shall not depict material contrary to Prevailing Community Standards on health and safety.’ Inherent is the implication that the community standard is the better or safer standard. But what if it’s not?

Australia’s community standards for sun protection falls way short of the safety recommendations. Even after 40 years of the Slip, Slop, Slap campaign and all it has achieved, 53 per cent of adults still only use one form of sun protection and for adolescents that figure is 67 per cent. The standard is to use multiple forms of protection.

Should the advertising industry continue to reinforce a community standard that is unsafe?

You only need to look at some facts to understand how unsafe Australia’s sun protection behaviours are. We have the highest incident of Melanoma in the world circa 8.7 times the average. We almost proudly claim skin cancer as ‘Australia’s national cancer’ because 2 in 3 of us will be diagnosed with it before we turn 70. It’s a disease which is almost entirely preventable by adopting sun protection behaviours yet continues to kill more people than die crashed on our roads. It also kills more 20–40-year-olds than any other single cancer.

There is no economic loss to the industry to adopt a higher standard when it comes to sun exposure, so why not do it. Don’t be a lemming.

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