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WHAT’S SO ARB-ITRARY ABOUT ONIONS, PETROLEUM JELLY AND HOT CHILLIES?

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Published Date: April 16, 2024

Hippo Advert Found Not Suitable For Children

Valentine’s Day for Hippo was slightly unconventional this year. Instead of chocolates, flowers and dinner at a fancy restaurant, it involved onions, petroleum jelly, hot chillies and a decision passed down by the Advertising Regulatory Board (the ‘ARB’), the body responsible for regulating the content of advertising in South Africa.

The advert at the heart of the decision begins by introducing Eric, a young man who is experiencing financial difficulties. Eric’s friends attempt to make plans with him, but he comes up with excuses for why he is unable to see them. He eventually resorts to lying about having an eye infection and is left with no choice but to make this lie a reality. Ignoring the animated hippo who is raising his hands and urging Eric against it, Eric proceeds to place freshly chopped onions, petroleum jelly, and chilli sauce in his eyes. These actions result in Eric genuinely swelling his eyes as his friends enter his house. The advert concludes with a voiceover stating “Don’t tell month-end lies. Use Hippo. Find cheaper insurance, medical aid, loans and more.”

On the surface, this appears to merely be an insurance advert highlighting how numerous South Africans, similar to Eric, struggle to fulfil their monthly debit order obligations. While the advert certainly may have prompted viewers to question how they can avoid being like Eric, the ARB was further prompted to question whether children might imitate Eric’s actions in order to avoid attending school or other commitments, potentially leading to physical harm.

The idea that insurance adverts may cause harm to young audiences is not novel and has already been addressed by the ARB. In the decision of 1832 – Dotsure – du Plessis (22 February 2022), the ARB held that even though children are not the intended target audience of insurance adverts, and such adverts are not designed to attract their attention, “commercials that are flighted when children might be watching should also take into account that what they depict could – and does – influence the behaviour of younger viewers.” Ultimately, research has consistently shown that children, particularly those under the age of eight, are highly impressionable and lack the cognitive skills to detect persuasive intent, rendering them vulnerable to accepting advertising content unquestioningly. It is for this very reason that the ARB noted, in the decision of 2067 – First for Women – Karen Feuth & Others (28 July 2022), that where advertisements are shown during daytime viewing, the associated brands must consider the impact that they could have on younger viewers. Failure to comply with these precautions and broadcasting adverts during times when children are likely to view them, could result in the ARB finding that the advert must be immediately withdrawn or amended, as was most recently the outcome in the case of 2966 – Dotsure – Smart & Another (14 December 2023).

Turning then to the determination of what type of content is impermissible for children to view, Clause 14 of Section II of the Code of Advertising Practice, is applicable, stating that advertisements that are likely to influence children should not contain statements or visuals that could harm them mentally, morally, physically, or emotionally. Children should, thus, not be led to believe that mimicking certain activities are acceptable or will not cause any harm. Notably, clause 14.1.3 contains a justification for depicting children in dangerous situations, namely, where it is to promote safety or where it is a surrealistic activity that is perceived as being such by the child.

This was the defence used by Hippo in the matter before the ARB. Hippo contended that the storyline, including the voiceover script and the animated hippo’s efforts to dissuade Eric from resorting to extreme measures to fake an eye infection is humorous, harmless and intended to amuse. In this respect, Eric’s actions are surrealistic and could by no means be viewed to encourage or promote children to imitate them. On the contrary, the advert dissuades such behaviour.

The ARB concurred that the overall message of the advert conveyed a sense of dissuasion and was satisfied that given the knowledge that older children have of the world, the possibility of them choosing to perform Eric’s actions is unlikely. The same, however, could not be said with regard to younger children. The ARB considered various factors, including how the severe painful consequences that would naturally result from performing Eric’s actions are neither displayed nor explained; how the presence of the animated hippo appeals to younger audiences; and how the items used by Eric are common household items that children can easily find in their home. Under the view that all these factors contribute to the likelihood that younger children may imitate Eric’s actions, the ARB found that the advert is in breach of Clause 14. It, accordingly, instructed its members (of which Hippo is not) to accept this advert only for flighting during programming not aimed at young children in any manner, emphasising how the ARB prefers to limit the broadcasting of an advert than to risk potential harm to children who may view it.

While viewers and advertisers might not see the harm in including onions, petroleum jelly and hot chillies in an insurance advert, it is clear that this decision has emerged as a reminder for advertisers to be considerate of children viewers and always err on the side of caution.

Jani Cronjé
Partner | Trade Mark Attorney

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