The Health Promotion Agency’s hepatitis C middle finger campaign has been canceled after complaints


The Hepatitis C television advert was dropped after complaints were made to the Advertising Standards Authority. Video / Ministry of Health – Manatū Hauora

TV and outdoor ads for a major public health campaign featuring a rude hand gesture were taken down just weeks after its launch because the content was found to be too offensive.

The “Stick it to Hep C” campaign was launched in late July by Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall in a bid to reduce New Zealand’s high death rate from the blood-borne virus.

Its ad featured people showing their middle finger – a gesture widely recognized as a form of insult and considered obscene – to another person, who initially appeared offended.

They then start smiling, indicating that they have had a finger prick test to see if they have been exposed to the disease.

The awareness campaign, planned as a key activity of the National Hepatitis C Action Plan to eliminate the virus, used broadcast, online, print and outdoor media to relay its message.

The gesture of the middle finger deemed too rude for the face of the public health campaign against hepatitis C. Photo / HPA
The gesture of the middle finger deemed too rude for the face of the public health campaign against hepatitis C. Photo / HPA

However, after its launch on July 28, the campaign was severely curtailed after 19 viewer complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority were upheld, forcing key aspects of the campaign off the air and out of public view.

National Director of the Public Health Service, Nick Chamberlain, confirmed that the authority had upheld complaints about the campaign about its choice of images and that it was “regrettable” that the health agency had not found the right balance.

“We can confirm that the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has upheld certain complaints about the hepatitis C awareness campaign.

“As a result, television advertisements will no longer be shown, and posters will no longer be displayed in bus shelters or on digital billboards.

“We had no intention of causing serious or widespread offense with our choice of campaign imagery and it is unfortunate that the ASA considers that we did not strike the right balance on this occasion.”

He said all free airings of the TV ad took place after the 8:30 p.m. turnaround. Airing the advertisement after this time has been assessed by the Office of Trade Approvals as unlikely to cause serious or widespread infringement.

“We have also taken steps to place outdoor advertisements such as digital billboards and posters in the most relevant locations for our target audience of men aged 45 and over,” he said. .

On-demand broadcasts of the ad were only shown to adult viewers based on their account holder profile information.

The double thumbs-up replacement image is now used in the Hepatitis C campaign. Photo/HPA
The double thumbs-up replacement image is now used in the Hepatitis C campaign. Photo/HPA

Despite the complaints, Chamberlain said the ads were received very positively by many people.

It had helped normalize conversations around hepatitis C and led to many at-risk New Zealanders seeking testing and treatment.

He said the concept of the campaign has been endorsed by representatives of the health sector, peer helpers and people with lived experience as the most effective way to raise awareness about hepatitis C.

Before lapel campaign metrics said the banned TV ad had reached more than half of the health agency’s primary target audience of men aged 45 and over, and more than 1,000 people had visited the stickittohepC website after searching online for one of the campaign phrases.

The Health Promotion Agency has since replaced its main campaign image of a middle finger with a double thumbs up, although the YouTube clip remains live with a middle finger image on the dedicated website. in the countryside.

The Advertising Standards Authority said it had received 18 complaints about TV advertising and one about the outdoor digital screen and poster.

In its findings, it said the complaints commission found the ad used an indecent and offensive hand gesture that breached the Code of Advertising Standards.

The authority said the complainants were concerned the ad used an offensive hand gesture that was “vulgar and inappropriate for use in government health messaging”.

“Some plaintiffs were concerned that the advertising would normalize the use of the gesture if children are exposed to it,” reads the decision.

On the outdoor poster, the complainant stated that the use of an offensive hand gesture considered sign language for “F*** You” had no place on a billboard that could be seen by children and should not have been sanctioned by a government department.

In defense of the ad, the health agency said use of the finger gesture was only likely to cause offense when accompanied by verbal abuse, threatening behavior or body language.

However, the complaints commission disagreed saying that it was not uncommon for the gesture to be used with a smile in a passive aggressive manner, which always had offensive intent.

He found that running the ad after the 8:30 p.m. adult turn or through adult subscriber profiles was not enough to avoid exposing a gesture to consumers who viewed it as disrespectful, indecent, and offensive.

The majority of the jury said the connection between the gesture and the finger prick test was not enough to justify its use, even in an advocacy advertisement.

When Verrall launched the national hepatitis C awareness campaign to mark World Hepatitis Day in late July, she said it was important to do everything possible to capture the attention of tens of thousands of Kiwis. who may unknowingly be infected with the potentially deadly virus.

“It’s really important that we do all we can to raise awareness about hepatitis C in order to eliminate the virus which around 40,000 to 45,000 New Zealanders live with,” Verrall said at the time.

The troubled awareness campaign was part of the National Hepatitis C Action Plan for Aotearoa in New Zealand, which was launched a year ago with the aim of eliminating hepatitis C as a major threat to public health by 2030.

“We call on Kiwis to ‘Stick it to hep C’ – ‘Werohia te Atekakā C’ – because all it takes to find out if you have been exposed to hepatitis C is a quick and easy needle prick test. finger.

“Over 200 New Zealanders continue to die each year from hepatitis C, even though we now have an easy test and an easy cure. If hepatitis C is left untreated, up to a quarter of cases will develop cirrhosis, which can lead to death liver cancer or liver failure.

“Each of these deaths could have been avoided with earlier diagnosis and treatment.”


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