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Thumbs down to ‘middle finger’ health campaign in New Zealand

smiling older woman gives the middle finger
One of the images from the New Zealand ‘Stick it to hep C’ ad campaign that has been deemed indecent and offensive. Photograph: Stick it to hep C website

A New Zealand health campaign designed to help curb hepatitis C has hit a stumbling block after one of its advertisements showing people raising the middle finger was deemed too offensive to air.

The associate health minister, Ayesha Verrall, launched the “Stick it to Hep C” campaign in July, to raise awareness over the virus, which kills roughly 200 New Zealanders a year.

The campaign included videos, outdoor posters and online material featuring actors raising their middle finger to another person, while smiling. The advertisement then goes on to show an actor having his middle finger pricked for a blood test, to determine if he has the blood-borne virus.

But the Advertising Standards Authority has upheld a complaint describing the advertising imagery as “deeply offensive”.

“The gesture is long established as ‘sign language’ for a series of very rude words, in short “F*%$ You!”,” the complainant said. “It has no place on a billboard nor where it can be seen by children.”

While the complaints board agreed that those watching the advertising were likely to understand that there is “an easy finger prick test to determine if you have been exposed to hepatitis C and a new effective treatment, meaning you can say ‘Fuck you’ to hep C’”, the context would be missing for most people who were “likely to only focus on the hand gesture”.

middle finger being pricked by a needle
An image from the ad showing a finger-prick test for hepatitis C. Photograph: Stick it to hep C website

The gesture was “one of the most offensive gestures you can give to another person and always has negative connotations”, the board said, disagreeing with the advertiser that the smiling faces of the characters mitigated any aggressive intent.

It agreed the advertisement used an indecent and offensive hand gesture, and was a breach of standards.

The national director of the Public Health Service, Nick Chamberlain, told the NZ Herald the decision was “regrettable”.

“We had no intention of causing serious or widespread offence with our choice of campaign imagery and it is regrettable that the ASA considers we didn’t get the balance right on this occasion.”

The middle finger photograph has been removed from the main campaign image in favour of a double thumbs up, but the YouTube clip remains online, and the middle finger imagery is still featured on the campaign’s website.

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