Cycling helmet added to image in Emirates ad

At first glance, the Emirates advertisement on a suburban bus stop in Australia is both charming and unexceptional.

A woman is riding a bicycle over a brick-paved bridge in what must surely be the Netherlands, with the slogan: "Don't just visit, live it. Navigate new paths in Europe."

But one thing caught the eye of Sydneysider Paul van Bellen - the rider is wearing a helmet, something you'd seldom see on a commuter in the Netherlands, a country with one of the highest cycling participation rates in the world.

Posted on social media, the image quickly sparked debate about the reasons behind the alteration, a bemused article in a Dutch publication, and a hunt for the original photo, which was duly tracked down.

Closer inspection indicated the helmet had been added to the original image with an editing tool, such as Photoshop. 

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​Why? Local sensitivities? Australia is one of only a few nations in the world that enforces mandatory helmets for adult cyclists (and even then, you can legally ride bare-headed on separated bike lanes and footpaths in the Northern Territory).

So what are the issues surrounding depictions of cycling in adverts in Australia? 

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Advertising Standards Bureau CEO Fiona Jolly told me that the self-regulation body receives complaints from the public, and if the item falls under the bureau's codes and initiatives, the board will consider the material and require the ad to be removed if the complaint is upheld.

Last year, the board tackled a 30-second video ad for Fernwood Fitness that featured a three-second clip of two women riding on a bike without helmets. People wrote to the bureau to say that state law in Australia requires helmets.

The gym responded by saying the footage was filmed on private property, but the board "noted that the women are depicted riding on a footpath adjacent to a road" leading to "the most likely interpretation" that it was a road-related area. 

Moreover, it said the bicycle shared by the women did not have a proper seat for carrying a passenger, as required by law. The advert was "contrary to prevailing community standards on the safe use of a bicycle", the board ruled, and the gym said it would re-edit and redistribute the advertisement. 

Helmet hangups

OK, that's for an ad depicting activity in Australia, where such laws and "prevailing community standards" exist.

But what about adverts featuring bicycles being used in the parts of the world where helmets are optional? Surely that's acceptable to the advertising authority?

Well, no, it's not. And one of the organisations to discover this in the past was, in fact, Emirates.

In 2008, the Advertising Standards Board tackled the airline over an ad featuring a laughing woman getting a lift on the rear rack of a bicycle along a cobbled street, with a baguette in her hand, and the slogan: "The world is your playground."​​​

People who complained about the ad noted that while "the presence of the baguette" suggested it was shot in France, "to a younger audience this may not be obvious".

They said it sent a message that "reckless behaviour with a total disregard for safety" as ordained by Australian laws, is "something which the viewers of the advert should aspire to".

Emirates strongly disagreed, and asked for the complaint to be dismissed, saying "this complaint does not accurately or fairly represent the content or tone of the advertisement", which was "not directed to children or young people".

A marketing quandary

In a lengthy response, Emirates spoke of the "marketing quandary" regarding "the extent to which we interpret Australian law in a European context", and made a comparison to children in an Italian gondola not wearing lifejackets, which might be required in Australia. 

Nevertheless, the board found that the ad breached "prevailing community standards on health and safety", while noting that the ad campaign had since run its course. 

The authority's Ms Jolly confirmed to me this week that even if it depicted overseas activity, "Australian community standards on health and safety must still be met within the advertisement".

So it's little wonder that the Amsterdam cyclist is wearing a helmet in the Australian billboard.

An Emirates spokesman told me they work with relevant authorities to ensure advertising materials comply with each country's local advertising standards. "Emirates digitally altered an image of a cyclist in Amsterdam and added a helmet to the cyclist to ensure that this image depicts proper road safety rules for cyclists, as per Australian Road Rules," the spokesman said. 

Australia and helmet laws

"Australian community standards" are by and large a global curiosity, with helmet laws for adults enforced in about three countries and a few jurisdictions, including some Canadian provinces and local government areas in the US.

When they were rolled out 25 years ago, it's quite likely our authorities felt they were on the vanguard of an important change. Since bike helmets confer a measure of protection, surely making them compulsory would be "a no-brainer"?

There is an endless list of arguments and counter-arguments on this issue - but for me, one of the most compelling is that the laws haven't travelled.

If the evidence for the laws was so compelling, surely every nation would have them?

Instead, international cycling advocates see Australia as an example of what not to do. They argue that the law's main effect is to act as a barrier to cycling, with a resulting negative effect on population health. 

One of my joys is to visit countries where bike riders aren't faced with fines of up to $319 for choosing not to wear a helmet.

In fact, I find I can often damp down any online argument about helmets by simply posting a few choice pictures of cycling in other parts of the world.

They may be contrary to standards when it comes to advertising in Australia - but on this issue, I have a global view. 

Fairfax journalist Michael O'Reilly has written the On Your Bike blog since 2011.  

Follow Michael on Twitter or Facebook, email him or read more of his blogs

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