27 December 2009

ABC brand name policy runs aground on Etihad Stadium

I have written before on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's policy of refusing to use brand names in the titles of sporting stadiums and the like.

At one level, this is obviously laughable - intelligent, adult, ABC announcers are forced to use silly euphemisms like "the Scottish hamburger company" for McDonald's or generic terms like "the domestic 4-day cricket competition" when they weren't allowed to say "Pura Cup".

At another level, it's unworkable. Seriously - how can you discuss modern Western life without mentioning brand names at least sometimes? Apple, Google, Windows, iPhone. Several times I've been lined up to be interviewed on-air by the ABC on aspects of consumer behaviour - once on the subject of whether consumers have too many choices - and been asked by the producer: "Oh, and please don't mention any brand names."

But never was the sheer idiocy of the "no brand names" policy exposed more clearly than on ABC Local Radio this post-Christmas sporting weekend.

For every AFL season since it opened, the ABC has referred to "Docklands Stadium" or just "the Docklands", refusing to acknowledge successive "commercial" names: Colonial Stadium, Telstra Dome and - commencing in 2009 - Etihad Stadium. Yet, after Supermaxi yacht "Wild Thing" raffled its naming rights, ABC Radio coverage of the Sydney-Hobart Yacht Race yesterday was happy to call the boat by the name of its sponsor... Etihad Stadium.

As it happens, Etihad Stadium - the sponsor - probably got more than its fair share of early media coverage on ABC Radio on Boxing Day, as Etihad Stadium - the boat - was the first high-profile retirement from the Sydney-Hobart race.

So why is "Etihad Stadium" unacceptable to the ABC as the name of a stadium but perfectly OK as the name of a boat?

I agree that the ABC should remain free of advertising. But saying a brand name on air isn't advertising if they didn't pay you to say it!

It's time the ABC gave up this bloody-minded charade. The brand name "policy" is unworkable, hypocritical and makes absolutely no sense at all.

Ineffective "retractions": How to make false claims and get away with it

During the past week, bemused TV viewers in Australia may have noticed a brief TV commercial relating to a retraction by EASE-a-Cold.

I say "bemused" because it's an ad you could easily "see" several times without taking in much of it and certainly without understanding the context.

In my view, that's perfectly understandable. I think it's an ad that has been deliberately designed NOT to be effective.

First, the TVC features a single screen of tiny writing in red on white - one of the most difficult colour combinations to read on TV. Even on a 46-inch, high-definition screen, I could not read the text, especially not in the time for which it remained on screen. Second, it has a voice-over delivered in the least engaging way possible - monotonous, emotionless and perfunctory, the same way the disclaimers are read at the end of political advertising.

The whole impression is of an ad designed to meet the minimum requirements to comply with some kind of external order... and nothing more.

The facts are that Pharmacare Laboratories has been found by the relevant tribunal to have made an unlawful, misleading and unverified claim about the therapeutic benefits of EASE-a-Cold. The company was ordered not only to withdraw the false and misleading claims, but also to publish a retraction.

But the EASE-a-Cold case is actually a great illustration of how easy it is to make false and misleading claims about therapeutic effects in Australia and, effectively, get away with it. It is especially disturbing, as the product had been the subject of a previous adverse finding when earlier claims about its ingredients - zinc, echinacea and vitamin C - were also ordered withdrawn.

Problem is, although Tribunals and Courts sometimes specify that misleading claims should be "retracted", in my experience they rarely specify the form of that retraction. Even if they do make some stipulation about the content, quantity and scheduling of "corrective" ads in print or on websites (as it has done in this case), tribunals don't usually get into specifying the executional style of TV ads.

In TV advertising or advertorials, claims about health or weight loss benefits of non-prescription products are never presented in an unemotional and disengaged style. Rather, they use tactics designed to maximise attention, appeal and persuasion: attractive presenters, compelling images and carefully-chosen language.

That's what makes these mandated retractions so farcical. They set out to attract minimal attention, to go unnoticed, to leave no lasting impression in the mind of those exposed to them. So they stand little or no chance of "undoing" the effects of the original false representations.

It's time for tribunals like the Therapeutic Products Advertising Complaints Resolution Panel - and even the Federal Court - to get serious about retractions and do much, much more to specify the style and context in which the corrective messages should be delivered.