OPINION: The backpackers’ vehicle rental company Wicked Campers is making a mockery of attempts to curb the use of offensive slogans on its vans. It has ignored repeated rulings against it by the Advertising Standards Authority, showing contempt not just for the complainants, but for the rest of us too.
The company has ended up before the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) because it is one of the agencies where people who are offended by the vehicles can go to seek redress. More than 20 complaints have been filed since 2014, and all but four of them upheld.
People have complained that the slogans are indecent, sexist or degrading to women, racist, violent, or that they advocate drug use, trivialise rape, denigrate visually-impaired people, and are offensive to Christians. The latest case involved the use of a four-letter word beginning with C, and the slogan “Let’s throw a cat on the barbie”. Other slogans are unprintable.
Complaints are upheld, but then nothing else happens. Wicked Campers consistently refuses to engage with the authority, does not respond to its decisions, and an ASA spokeswoman says she is not aware that the company complies with any of its rulings.
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The company and its cheap, gaudily-painted vans also drag down the image of the low-cost end of the tourist industry, already at odds with the community because of freedom camping and the resulting excrement and waste.
Reaction, on social media inevitably, is mixed. Some commenters say that people should lighten up and see the funny side. That is difficult for travellers stuck behind a Wicked Camper on a long drive with a questioning child.
More broadly, the slogans intersect with the perennial public debate about free speech. Of course, people should be allowed to say what they think, even if it causes offence to someone, but it has long been held that this right needs to be tempered by responsibility.
On this score, Wicked Campers doesn’t seem to care. The slogans are a form of guerrilla marketing, designed to achieve maximum exposure for minimal cost. Every piece of controversy, every case brought with the ASA, and even this editorial, perversely gives them more publicity and helps them achieve their ends.
Wicked Campers is a Brisbane-based outfit founded by former mechanic John Webb. In his home state of Queensland, legislation has been introduced to allow vehicles which carry offensive advertising to be ordered off the road and deregistered.
In New Zealand, some campground operators have required travellers to cover up the slogans, and the Department of Conservation has stopped the company advertising on its website.
For those still outraged, one effective line of redress – weirdly – could be through the censorship agency, the Office of Film and Literature Classification.
Nine Wicked Camper vans have been looked at by the Classification Office and five of them declared “objectionable” and banned, not least because they can be seen by people aged under 16. They then disappear off the road, because the penalties for defiance include jail time and a maximum $200,000 fine.
It is a win for public decency, but a long and tortuous process to combat a single company’s persistent anti-social behaviour.