If you see an anti-choice ad that you feel is inappropriate, offensive, inaccurate, etc., you can submit a complaint to the advertising watchdog Ad Standards. This private agency administers the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards (“the Code”).
Ad Standards has limited enforcement powers beyond
asking the advertiser to rescind the ad and not use it again,
and some anti-choice groups refuse to honour this request.
Although the Code has no authority or legal standing on its
own, it is widely endorsed by advertisers, advertising
agencies, and media. When ads are deemed to contravene the
Code, the decisions can be effectively used to convince the ad
hosts (local governments, media outlets, etc.) to remove the
ads and not accept similar ads again. Further, many cities and
municipalities cite the Code in bylaws and advertising
policies, which gives the Code further authority and strength.
Please note that Ad Standards only
accepts up to 10 complaints on any particular ad (as of
Oct 2018). They only need ONE complaint to initiate a
review, and large numbers of complaints slow down their
Therefore, please check with ARCC (firstname.lastname@example.org) before sending in a complaint, particularly for ads that are not confined to one city or region in Canada.
You can submit your complaint online or by snail mail or fax. When submitting online, the website will take you through a series of questions. We provide guidance for most of the steps as follows:
If you don’t have a photo or copy of the ad to send (see next field), describe the ad in detail here.
Alternatively, provide a link to a copy of the ad online. Sometimes a media story will show it or the anti-choice group responsible will have it on their website. Make certain that any linked copy you provide is the same ad you saw.
See our Guide to Advertising Code below to help you, if desired. For example, you may want to cite section(s) of the Advertising Code and explain why you believe the ad contravenes them.
However, it’s fine to just describe the negative effects the ad had upon you or your loved ones, or give your own reasons why you feel the ad is inappropriate. This could even make your complaint stronger, e.g. if you had a strong emotional reaction to the ad.
If Ad Standards thinks there might be a Code infringement, they will accept your complaint for formal review by the Advertising Standards Council.
If desired, you can do a bit of research on the Code to figure out what Code sections the ad might contravene, and the previous decisions Ad Standards has made against anti-choice ads. Again, this is not necessary, feel free to submit a complaint based on your own thoughts and opinions.
Here’s the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards, complete with explanation and definitions.
To see decisions against anti-choice ads, visit Ad Standards’ page that links to recent, annual, and archived complaint summaries. You'll need to browse through them as there does not appear to be a search feature.
Anti-choice ads are considered advocacy ads. Just by their nature, most anti-choice ads will run afoul of Section 1 of the Code, Accuracy and Clarity, which is worded quite broadly to capture not only inaccuracies but also deceptive or misleading claims, omissions, and claims unsupported by evidence.
Previous examples of inaccuracies that Ad Standards found in anti-choice ads include:
Another very important part of the Code is section 14, Unacceptable Depictions and Portrayals. Anti-choice ads are often demeaning to women and trans people, and arguably even discriminatory because they may imply they are murderers or that their Charter rights should be removed.
Section 14 has several subsections that advertisements must not contravene. (Note: The following are incomplete summaries that may also miss nuance. Please consult the full text.)
Advertisements must not:
Previous examples of Section 14 contraventions that Ad Standards found in anti-choice ads include:
Two other Code sections might be useful, depending on the ad:
The only anti-choice ad that, so far, has been found in contravention of this section was an ad saying: “This is a Child. Not a Choice. Why abortion when there are alternatives?” Ad Standards said this statement played upon women’s fears in order to mislead them about abortion.
A billboard pictured a sleeping infant with
the caption "My heart started beating 3 weeks after
conception. HamiltonRighttoLife.org @HamiltonR2L"
The ad contravenes the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards, Section 1, Accuracy & Clarity, because there is no heart and not even a heartbeat at three weeks. There is only a fetal pole, which cannot be distinguished until 5.5 to 6.5 weeks gestation. (www.fetalultrasound.com/online/text/3-078.htm)
A fetal pole "is the first direct imaging manifestation of
the fetus and is seen as a thickening on the margin of the
yolk sac during early pregnancy." (https://radiopaedia.org/articles/fetal-pole).
“What is interpreted as a heartbeat in these bills is actually electrically induced flickering of a portion of the fetal tissue that will become the heart as the embryo develops.” -- Ted Anderson, president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, speaking about the six-week abortion bans introduced in several U.S. states. (www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jun/05/abortion-doctors-fetal-heartbeat-bills-language-misleading)
March 2019: A billboard near the intersection of Highway 97
South and Grizzly Road in West Kelowna showed the image of a
pregnant woman at full term or near full term, next to a
picture of the same woman holding her baby after it is born.
The caption read: 'Our
right to life does not depend on our location.'
The ad was clearly misleading and inaccurate, and in
violation of the Advertising Code because it implies that
women in Canada can have abortions right up to nine months of
pregnancy, which is demonstrably false. Further, Ad Standards
has previously ruled against several ads that made similar
implications. (see the first four examples below under Section
1 - Accuracy and Clarity)
Ad Standards received numerous complaints about this ad and
issued a decision on May 7, 2019, finding that the ad
contravened both Section 1 and Section 14. The ad inaccurately
conveyed the message that women in late stages of pregnancy
routinely have abortions, and that this representation was
demeaning, denigrating, and disparaging to women.
Section 1, Accuracy & Clarity:
The ad is inaccurate and misleading because it implies that women in Canada can obtain and do obtain - perhaps routinely - abortions at full term or near full term. However, policy and practice limit abortion in Canada to 22 weeks (after last menstrual period) except in rare compelling circumstances, mostly in cases of severe or fatal fetal anomalies. The very small number of later abortions are proven by CIHI's official statistics, compiled here by ARCC.
Section 14, Unacceptable Depictions and Portrayals
The ad is demeaning and disparaging to women because it implies they choose to abort their pregnancy when it is full term or near full term. It's also demeaning because the woman's head is cut off in the picture, reducing her to just her body as an instrument of childbearing. A woman's body is not a "location."
The anti-choice movement often claims that Canada's lack of a law against abortion means that third-trimester abortions commonly occur for any reason at all, which is also the implication behind this ad. That claim is not just false, but malicious and hateful against both women and doctors.
In Ottawa, the radio station LiVE 88.5 FM ran an anti-abortion ad since early October. A supporter got in touch with them and they responded: “We air the commercial because it is our responsibility to act as custodians of free speech.”
But the reason that anti-choice ads should not be run is
because they almost always feature false information, and/or
demean women. Ad hosts need to vet dubious ads with Ad
Standards before they run the ad. We received
no reports of complaints to Ad Standards, and there is no
known decision by Ad Standards.
Here's the text of the ad:
"Did you know that there are over 100 000 abortions every year in Canada? That's almost 300 abortions a day. Did you know that an unborn child's heart starts beating 21 days after conception? And that individualized brainwaves of unborn children have been recorded as early as 6 weeks and 2 days? Canada is aborting it's future one life at a time. To find out more about abortion, visit www.actionlife.org this message was brought to you by Action Life Ottawa."
|ARCC's critique of
Section 1, Accuracy & Clarity:
Obstretician/gynecologist Dr. Jen Gunter wrote about American "fetal heartbeat" bills in 2016 (https://drjengunter.wordpress.com/2016/12/11/dear-press-stop-calling-them-heartbeat-bills-and-call-them-fetal-pole-cardiac-activity-bills).
Dr. Gunter says: "The earliest cardiac activity is seen in a fetal pole and using any other term means that you are lock step with a campaign of misinformation and it’s wrong."
In other words, it is NOT a heartbeat at 21 days because there is no heart yet.
A fetal pole "is the first direct imaging manifestation of the fetus and is seen as a thickening on the margin of the yolk sac during early pregnancy." (https://radiopaedia.org/articles/fetal-pole).
"It's actually the structure that becomes that fetus, but at this point of development in no way resembles a human being." (https://www.verywellfamily.com/my-ultrasound-showed-no-fetal-pole-am-i-miscarrying-2371249)
The ad employs medical terminology yet uses the terms "unborn child" and "unborn children." Embryos and fetuses are not children. There is no "child" when fetal pole cardiac activity is detected, and no "child" when abortion occurs.
Section 14, Unacceptable Depictions and Portrayals
The sentence: "Canada is aborting it's future one life at a time" is demeaning to women and transgender people who need abortion. Safe, legal abortion protects THEIR future and that of their families. Women are full human beings with Charter rights, not incubators.
Further, the ad is misleading and demeaning because it erases the critical role of pregnant women. There would be no cardiac or brain activity without the person carrying the embryo/fetus, which is in no way viable outside the womb at 21 days and not till about 24 weeks.
Ad Standards issued a decision on Oct 17 against the anti-choice billboards and signs "Canada has no abortion laws", on the basis that the ad contravenes Section 1 of the Advertising Code, "Accuracy and Clarity". Ad Standards said:
"In the unanimous opinion of the members of Council, the claim in question disregarded the reality that by overturning the Criminal Code provisions outlawing abortions in Canada, the Supreme Court of Canada in 1988 imposed new law by which abortion became legal in Canada. For the advertiser to state, or at the least clearly imply, that no laws applicable to abortion exist today in Canada is a misstatement of the law in Canada. The law of the land was enunciated in the R. v. Morgentaler case by the Supreme Court of Canada, the highest legal authority in Canada. Coupled with regulations imposed by Canadian authorities on the conduct of abortions in Canada, the Supreme Court’s decision in R. v. Morgentaler makes it clear that, contrary to the advertising claim, binding Canadian law that permits abortion in Canada does, in fact, currently exist."
Background: The anti-choice group "We Need a Law" contracted with Pattison Outdoor Advertising to display these billboards in 30 cities/locations across Canada - despite the fact that Pattison has an Advertising Policy that says ads must not contravene the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards. Unfortunately, Pattison still approved and ran the ad, and company president Randy Otto insisted they won't take down the ad unless/until Ad Standards issues a decision against the ad. In addition to the Pattison billboards, Lamar Advertising in London ON ran the ad on buses.
ARCC's critique of the ad was quite different than that of Ad Standards:
|On its face, the ad statement that
“Canada has no abortion laws” is accurate. However, that
is not enough. It’s about the implication the ad makes
and what's missing. Section 1 of the Advertising Code,
"Accuracy and Clarity", is broadly worded to disallow
representations that may be perceived by the audience in
a misleading way, i.e., the general impression conveyed
by the advertisement is key. Ads must also not omit
relevant information that results in a deceptive or
The perceived misleading messages the ad sends are that abortion is completely unregulated, there's something wrong with abortion, and there should be laws restricting abortion. Further, the ad omits to say that abortion is in fact regulated by the Canada Health Act, the Canadian Medical Association, the provincial Colleges of Physicians & Surgeons, medical discretion, best practices, and clinical protocols. Just like any other healthcare. In fact, no healthcare treatment has criminal or civil laws governing it, as that is unnecessary, including for abortion.
Also, the ad may contravene Section 14 of the Advertising Code (Unacceptable Depictions and Portrayals) because abortion is a fundamental right for women, protected by Charter rights of bodily security, life, liberty, conscience, privacy, and equality. The advertiser "We Need a Law" advocates for laws restricting abortion, which means they advocate for removing women's human rights. Under Section 14, this would be condoning discrimination, as well as demeaning or degrading to women. The same applies to transgender people who can get pregnant, as they are protected under anti-discrimination laws.
Ad Standards apparently did not rule on this particular instance because it had previously issued a decision against aborted fetus imagery in the form of graphic flyers delivered to households by the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform (CCBR). However, CCBR openly flouts Ad Standards decisions against its messaging.
The anti-choice groups CCBR and "Show the Truth" were active
in numerous cities over the summer of 2018 displaying their
graphic imagery of alleged aborted fetuses, and/or delivering
graphic flyers to households. The majority of activity was in
the metro Toronto area, but there were reports of activities
from Ottawa, Peterborough, Oshawa, Oakville, Pickering,
Waterloo, Burlington, Winnipeg, Regina, Calgary, Vancouver,
New Westminster, Burnaby, and other cities.
Ads implying that full-term fetuses were being aborted in Canada and suffering pain from abortion were placed on bus benches in the City of Lethbridge Alberta in March 2018. The ads were removed by the city in April 2018 after numerous complaints.On May 30, Ad Standards upheld a complaint about the ad, saying it was misrepresentative, scientifically inaccurate, and demeaning and disparaging to women.