Flattened, warmed-over hamburgers, wilting salads, sad sandwiches – the reality that comes across the counter at fast-food joints rarely matches up to the juicy bounty promised in their commercials.

And in an Instagram generation – where people often take photos of their food in order to brag to their friends – a growing number of customers are sending their more unflattering snaps to Canada’s advertising watchdog. Their complaint: That all too often the fanfare is out of step with the actual fare.

“Every year, we get a few saying: ‘That hamburger didn’t look anything like the commercial.’ This past year, we did get more than usual,” said Janet Feasby, vice-president of standards at Advertising Standards Canada (ASC), the self-regulatory body that oversees the industry. “We’ve been telling people who raise that issue, ‘Okay, send us some pictures.’ That’s what happened. … It was interesting that people did go to the trouble.”

The organization chose to highlight the concern over this mismatch in its annual report on advertising complaints, released Wednesday. While wan-looking fast food did not represent the highest number of complaints by far, the organization uses the report to draw advertisers’ attention to growing concerns among consumers.

A sandwich’s good looks can be a difficult thing to adjudicate: It’s reasonable to expect that a quick-service meal won’t be as beautiful as a meticulously styled dish at a photo-shoot. But it still has to be true to the promises. One chain did get in trouble last year – Subway, which attracted five complaints for a television ad for its lobster sub. When consumers showed that their sandwiches had significantly less lobster in them than was shown in the picture, an ASC council found that the ad was misleading. Subway disagreed with the decision.

The ASC assembles councils comprising industry representatives and consumers to review ads that may contravene the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards. The organization only reviews ads based on complaints, so the annual report is as much a poll on the kinds of ads that bother Canadians most – enough to cause them to complain – as it is the kinds of ads that are most often going against the rules. When ads are found by councils to be in violation of the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards, the advertisers are asked to stop running them or make changes. But since the ASC does not hand out fines, these decisions can sometimes be hard to enforce. When an advertiser co-operates, the ASC publishes its decisions but omits the advertiser’s name; when it does not, the ASC makes all the details of the case public.

In 2015, Canadians submitted 1,774 complaints to the regulatory organization. That was a major spike from previous years, and was driven largely by one category of ads: those from non-profit or advocacy organizations.

“It is a highly unusual year,” Ms. Feasby said. “Normally that category is very small.”

For example, two billboards in Quebec attracted 96 complaints. Paid for by the “Friends of Science Society,” the billboards claimed, respectively, that “The Sun is the Main Driver of Climate Change. Not You. Not CO2” and that “Global Warming Stopped Naturally 16+ Years Ago.” The Ad Standards Council found that the billboards violated the code’s requirement for accuracy and clarity, as well as the code’s clause prohibiting advertisements that “imply that they have a scientific basis that they do not truly possess.”

Another set of handouts with the heading “No2Trudeau,” which were distributed door to door during the federal election campaign by the anti-abortion group the Centre for Bio-ethical Reform, triggered 105 complaints for their use of “graphic images of aborted foetuses.” The Ad Standards Council found that these violated the code’s clause covering “unacceptable portrayals.” Its decision stated that “the advertisement with this imagery displayed obvious indifference to conduct or attitudes that offended the standards of public decency prevailing among a significant segment of the population,” but added that the group has not responded to its requests to remove the graphic images from the ads.

As in previous years, the largest number of complaints were about accuracy and clarity in ads, including inaccurate price claims or misleading information about deals and offers. In total, 717 complaints were submitted; 167 of them covering 43 ads that were found to violate the code.

The second-largest category was “unacceptable depictions or portrayals,” which drew 453 complaints. Of those, 92 complaints about seven ads were upheld. One of them, for example, for Queue de Cheval Steakhouse in Quebec, showed a young woman in black lingerie with the phrase, “How do you like your meat?” The standards council found that “the advertisement exploited women’s sexuality thereby demeaning them, and also undermined human dignity.”

Another prominent concern covered “professional and scientific claims” in ads, which drew 109 complaints; 102 of those, covering just four ads, were upheld.

Other categories that drew complaints were ads that disguise their advertising purposes, for example, by pretending to be news articles; bait-and-switch ads; those that exploit superstitions and fears to mislead people; ads targeted to children; and those that show a “disregard for safety” by showing unsafe or dangerous situations.

Total complaints.Total complaints2



The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Apr. 13, 2016 12:01AM EDT
Last updated Wednesday, Apr. 13, 2016 12:01AM EDT