Degree Name

Masters of Science - Research


School of Health Sciences


In Australia, consumer complaints about advertising are adjudicated by the Advertising Standards Board (ASB) against ‘prevailing community standards’. Despite having a central place within the existing regulatory framework, there is no evidence-based definition of this term and it is used inconsistently within ASB decisions. Thus, complaint determinations made by the ASB may not be representative of the views of the Australian public. Currently, the majority of complaints made against advertisements in Australia are dismissed by the ASB as they are not considered contrary to ‘prevailing community standards’, in the context of the current Advertising Code of Ethics. This suggests that there is a gap between the standards held by the community and those utilized by the ASB; a gap that needs to be addressed to ensure Australia has a more accurate, fair and community focus complaint determination process.


This project aimed to collect comprehensive data on the nature of community standards in relation to advertising – both in terms of what is deemed to be (un)acceptable and the underlying considerations (or viewpoints) on which these standards are determined. To achieve this, this project: developed a taxonomy of evidence-based standards on community views on the ethicality of various types of images and messages in advertising; investigated whether the community holds different standards towards advertising in a commercial compared to a social marketing context; and, finally, explored what other considerations the community take into account when determining the acceptability of advertising content.


To more thoroughly investigate the concept of community standards for advertising, this project consisted of qualitative and quantitative research, based on Creswell and Plano Clark’s (2007) Taxonomy Development Model. During the first phase, a series of 20 focus groups were held to determine the range of issues which members of the community see as ethically problematic in advertising. Following a thematic analysis, the results were used to develop a taxonomy of ethical issues in advertising, as perceived by members of the Australian community. To quantify the results of Phase One, a community-based survey was conducted in Phase Two.


There were three major themes that emerged from this research: stereotypes, prejudice and language; violence and potentially harmful behaviours; and adverse effects of advertising on children. These themes were consistent across the qualitative and quantitative phases of this research. The most notable finding was that the opinions held by the community in respect to these three themes were independent of gender, age, level of education, religious affiliation, being a parent, and previous lodgement of a complaint about advertising. The results also demonstrated that there was a difference in the standards the community held towards social marketing advertising and commercial advertising. Finally, it was clear that there were a number of thoughtful, reasoned considerations that these community members took into account when determining their opinion on (un)acceptable advertising; that is, responses were not merely a one-dimensional reaction to the image or message portrayed.


Australia’s current system of advertising self-regulation does not adequately address or represent the standards the community hold for acceptable advertising. Changes need to be made to the manner in which the system is regulated, including (but not restricted to) a more representative Code of Ethics that reflects current issues of concern held by the community and a complaints resolution process that takes into account the various considerations behind a complainant’s opinion. Until this occurs, advertising complaints will not be accurately or fairly adjudicated by the ASB against ‘prevailing community standards’.


This thesis contributes to the current body of knowledge by identifying evidencebased community standards for advertising in Australia, the level of importance the community places on the commercial or social marketing context of an advertisement, and the underlying considerations that are taken into account by consumers when determining the acceptability of advertising images and messages.



Unless otherwise indicated, the views expressed in this thesis are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Wollongong.