I’ve cross-posted this both here and at Catallaxy. It’s important because it has the potential to influence the way advertising and marketing is perceived in all sorts of ways. I’m interested to see what libertarian parents think of the issues raised…
Couldn’t happen to a nicer bloke:
In what is believed to be a world first, David Jones begins a legal case tomorrow in which it is suing the left-leaning think tank the Australia Institute and its executive director, Clive Hamilton, over claims the giant retailer’s advertising eroticised and sexually exploited children
The case, in the Federal Court in Sydney, is thought to be the first time a court will consider the sexualisation of children in advertising.
The retailer is suing under the Trade Practices Act, claiming the institute engaged in misleading and deceptive conduct. The avenue of suing for defamation was closed to big companies after the introduction of uniform defamation laws in January 2006.
The case stems from a media release in October titled “Corporate paedophilia – sexualising children by advertising and marketing”, which announced the launching of a discussion paper. The release named retail chains such as David Jones and Myer as having “jumped on the bandwagon” in eroticising children in the interests of the bottom line.
It’s about time we had this conversation. A forensic analysis of just what advertising can and can’t do is sorely needed, and if ever a case is destined to be a ‘battle of the experts’, it’s this one. Oliver James, Clive Hamilton and others like them have made large claims about the capacity of advertising to achieve non-sales outcomes (and, by extension, negative consequences). However, various small studies seem to indicate that advertising is good at raising product profile and sales, but doesn’t actually do much else. Cultural studies theorist Greg Dening had this to say about one particularly well known advertising campaign:
Some years ago, the Commonwealth Government tried to educate the Australian public to the dangers of AIDS by creating some theatre in a television clip. Death, the Grim Reaper, was shown as a figure playing ten-pin bowling. The bowling pins were men, women and children. They bounced and clattered away randomly as death scored. There was some alarm expressed at the time at the brutal starkness of the advertisement. Many felt it was too shocking. It was overkill, some said. Then we learned in the weeks that followed that the chief effect of the advertisement was a sharp drop in the membership of ten-pin bowling clubs. It is a depressing story for anyone who thinks that writing history is theatre. How does one produce the effects one wants in one’s stories? Presumably, if one knew that, one could rule the world or at least sell a lot of something. Maybe the answer is that one can never be sure of producing the effects one wants.
Interestingly, David Jones have wheeled out section 52. This is the classic ‘misleading and deceptive conduct’ provision, and is more typically deployed by weaker parties against those in stronger bargaining positions. It has come to operate as a stand-in for contractual misrepresentation at common law, mainly because the remedies available for breach (under sections 80, 82 and 87 of the act) are more wide-ranging and better able to be tailored to individual litigants’ requirements. It is a major part of Australia’s consumer protection law, and has been effective in a Hayekian jurisprudential sense because it mimics the abstract, end-independent qualities of the common law.
Of course, the usual lawyerly caveats about ‘giving them oxygen’ apply. If the Australia Institute report in question was well known before the suit, it is exceptionally well-known now. However, as someone with a long-term interest in the capacity – first articulated in Plato – of visual stimuli to shape peoples’ minds (and particularly those of children) more generally, I know that much of the debate around censorship turns on a detailed understanding of just what things like advertisements can do.
Now all parties are put to the proof. It should be interesting.