19 November 2022
BUGA UP originated in 1979, when its 3 founders were prevented from a regular evening out to re-face tobacco billboards by pouring rain. As it they sat and waited, they thought about how to publicise their work so that it did not appear as random anti-tobacco graffiti. They wanted a word that would be irreverent and would embody the concept of hitting back against the unhealthy promotions. After some discussion, the word BUGA UP was developed, an acronym for Billboard Utilising Graffitists Against Unhealthy Promotions. From that night they signed all the re-faced billboards with BUGA UP.
The major problem at that time was tobacco promotion, which accounted for over half outdoor advertising, with alcohol second. The concept was self-regulatory in that anyone taking up a spray can had to make their own decision about what they wanted to say, i.e. what they were willing to be arrested for.
A relatively large number of graffitists, especially from the medical fraternity, were inspired by what appeared to be a large campaign and were willing to be arrested for spraying on tobacco billboards. Other activists were concerned about alcohol promotion and some were concerned about sexism in advertising. A relatively small percentage were willing to be arrested for junk food or drink ads. (There were no ads for gambling at that time).
BUGA UP, however, looked at the whole issue of the regulation of advertising, asking that it not be one-way communication with no input from consumers or regulators as to the content or consequences of the promotions. The advertisers’ position was that it was their money, they could say what they liked, as this was ‘freedom of commercial speech’. Note the extra word in the cliche ‘freedom of speech’.
The advertisers set up a farcical ‘Advertising Standards Council’ which had very loose ‘codes of practice’ and an industry dominated judicial system, which took so long to work that the ad campaign was invariably over even if they banned an ad, which very rarely happened as they had the numbers in the kangaroo courts. One hapless paediatrician was recruited onto one of these committees, had his name used to champion the quality of its membership, and of course was outvoted in every deliberation. He eventually acknowledged sadly that he had been ‘used’ and he resigned.
But BUGA UP was active, producing a publication, ‘Billboard’, which was sent to all the major players in the advertising industry to emphasise to them that their regulatory systems were recognised as farcical. BUGA UP invented the ‘Advertising Double Standards Council’ to satirise the ‘Advertising Standards Council’. Its slogan was ‘If advertising standards are good, double standards are twice as good’.
One of BUGA UP’s members, Peter Vogel, wrote over 400 complaints about many ads. He was labelled a ‘serial complainer’ and they wanted not to respond to his complaints. He insisted that by their own charter they had to. They rejected all 400+!
Eventually there had been so much publicity about advertising regulation that the advertising industry wanted the Trade Practices Commission to re-legitimise its self-regulatory system, presumably as they thought government regulation was possible in the future. The Fairfax newspapers fronted this action, and it was opposed by ACA, The Australian Consumers’ Association. The advertisers said that their codes and practices were working well. At this stage Peter Vogel of BUGA UP came out of the woodwork, with his huge file of denied complaints. He had systematically made complaints using every item of the advertisers codes of practice and had a farcical response to every item, which the Commission could judge for itself.
Two academics, Shenagh Barnes and Michael Blakeney wrote a book called ‘Advertising Regulation’ (Law Book Co 1982) which concluded that the self regulatory system manifestly lacked credibility’. But despite the moral victory, the consequences of the trial were not good. The Trade Practices Tribunal concluded that it was not able to set up a regulatory structure, but could only either approve or reject what was put in front of it, so in the absence of any alternative it approved the self-regulatory system as it might have a bit of benefit over nothing at all. ACA, the Consumers’ organisation, was almost sent bankrupt by the legal fees involved, and overall the Industry had got what it wanted. A few years later when the issue had faded from the public eye, the Advertising Standards Council faded too.
The original BUGA UP guide, ‘Ad Expo- a self-defence course for children’ from 1983 is still available online, but of course its ads are now dated. (ww.bugaup.org/publications/Ad_Expo.pdf)
But now, as gambling wreaks havoc with families, and childhood obesity skyrockets, the issue of irresponsible advertising is back in the spotlight. Let us hope that there is more success this time, but a lot of work will be needed even to get up the momentum that BUGA UP had in 1983.
Here is an article on sugar and obesity: