Anti-COVID vaccine billboard in West Kelowna sowed doubt and fear, says regulator | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Anti-COVID vaccine billboard in West Kelowna sowed doubt and fear, says regulator

A photo of the West Kelowna billboard in November 2020.
Image Credit: Twitter/Hello Kelowna
February 25, 2021 - 11:32 AM

The Canadian advertising regulator has ruled a billboard in West Kelowna with the slogan, "COVID. Is the cure worse than the illness?" broke advertising laws by falsely suggesting the COVID-19 vaccine could be worse than contracting the disease itself.

In the Ad Standards decision, the regulator ruled the billboard by Vaccine Choice Canada broke advertising rules by being "misleading" by suggesting the COVID-19 vaccine was, or could be, worse than getting COVID-19, even though there was no evidence to support its claim.

The decision says the ad was "sowing this doubt (and) could contribute to vaccine hesitancy by playing upon fears rather than providing facts."

According to the decision, the billboard posed the question: "COVID. Is the cure worse than the illness?" Next to this message, was an image of a sign that read "Sorry, We’re Closed," with Vaccine Choice Canada's website address appearing in large letters at the bottom of the billboard.

Several complainants were received saying the ad was spreading dangerous information about COVID-19 safety measures, and posed a risk to public health by making statements that were not truthful. Complainants also accused the ad of spreading misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine.

The Ad Standards board agreed.

In the recently published Ad Standards decision, the board ruled Vaccine Choice Canada's billboard broke advertising standards clauses in areas of "accuracy and clarity," "safety," as well as "superstitions and fears."

While the decision does not give a location where the billboard was erected one was spotted in West Kelowna last fall. While the decision does not give a date, the decision says the ad went up shortly before Health Canada authorized the first COVID-19 vaccine.

The Ad Standards board said that the billboard's message was open to several interpretations.

"The word 'cure' could be interpreted as referring to the measures taken to date to stop the spread of COVID-19 such as business closures, exemplified with the image of the 'Closed' sign next to the advertisement’s copy," the decision reads.

However, the majority of the board ruled the word "cure" was interpreted as referring to the COVID-19 vaccine because the words "VACCINE CHOICE" appeared prominently under the question, "COVID. Is the cure worse than the illness?"

Ad Standards ruled this gave the billboard an "ambiguous" meaning.

Vaccine Choice Canada argued its ad was supposed to invite public discourse to evaluate the effectiveness of the measures imposed in response to the pandemic. It further argued that discussions around the measures imposed by the pandemic were "systematically censored" and that billboards were one of the remaining public spaces to engage with the public.

The regulator said as an outdoor billboard is likely to be passed quickly the ad gave the "general impression" that the ad suggested the COVID-19 vaccine was worse than contracting the disease itself.

"(Ad Standards) had no evidence before it to support the position that the vaccine was, or could be, worse than contracting COVID-19 as a general proposition. As such, the advertisement was found to be misleading,” the decision reads.

The decision says this breaks Ad Standards rules on accuracy and clarity.

The regulator also found the billboard broke ad standards rules surrounding safety and superstitions and fears.

“Taken in the context of a global pandemic and the possibility that 'cure' could mean vaccine, sowing this doubt could contribute to vaccine hesitancy by playing upon fears rather than providing facts," the decision says.

The decision goes onto to say that its decision was not unanimous and that a minority of the Ad Standards board found that the general impression created by the billboard was that it incited discussion about the economic impact of business closures.

The Ad Standards decision does not say if any penalty was issued, or whether the billboard was still up or had to be removed.


To contact a reporter for this story, email Ben Bulmer or call (250) 309-5230 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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