Ad firm accused of trying to shut down debate with Say No to No campaign

The Australian, Rebecca Urban

A leading advertising agency behind­ the push for same-sex marriage­ has been accused of trying to shut down debate ahead of a postal plebiscite, after it called on its industry peers to refuse to work for companies campaigning against the cause.

The brainchild of Royals creat­ive partner Nick Cummins, the Say No To No campaign launched on Thursday and has already been backed by more than 500 employees from advertising agencies across the country as well as media companies, including Southern Cross Austereo and Buzzfeed.

While Mr Cummins defended the boycott, describing it as no different­ to refusing to work for a tobacco company, it has been criticised as an attack on free speech and democracy.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott said the initiative demonstrated that intolerance was at the heart of the same-sex marriage campaign. “Disagreement isn’t just wrong — it’s not allowed,” Mr Abbott told The Australian.

“I would say to advertisers, don’t allow yourself to be coerced by political groupthink.”

Legal academic Augusto Zimmermann said the boycott, while not illegal, was “a serious display of undemocratic behaviour”.

“Although the federal government has committed itself to holding a plebiscite so that the people will be allowed to decide the matter­, I wonder how this can be achieved when advocates of the traditional view are prevented from expressing their opinions by intolerant activists,” he said.

Marriage Alliance spokes­woman Sophie York said the group’s campaign to keep existing marriage­ laws intact had previously been subjected to censorship bids, including media bans on past advertisements.

“We have been saying for years that this vote would be a vote on freedom of speech and the ad industry­ just proved it,” she said. “The message our opponents are sending is simple and clear: if you disagree, you shouldn’t be heard.”

Liberal MP and marriage-equality advocate Tim Wilson expressed little sympathy, however.

“The No campaign wanted this plebiscite and shouldn’t be surprised­ others want to hold them to account for putting the legal standing of other people’s relation­ships to a vote,” he said.

According to the Say No to No website, the plebiscite would lead to the circulation of “hurtful messag­es” from No campaigners.

“Luckily we can do something,” it says. “Imagine if every agency, production company, sound designer­ or illustrator said ‘No’ to working on these harmful ads.

“Imagine then our friends in media also standing up and saying No to the No campaign.”

Mr Cummins, whose firm crea­t­ed a recent campaign for Austral­ian Marriage Equality and expects to do work on the upcoming Yes campaign, said the boycott was “not about telling people how to vote”. “This is about an industry saying we will not be making campaigns that leave individuals vulnerable because they are harmful,” he told The Australian.

“I liken it to making a decision not to work for a company. It’s a big industry group hug.”

A spokeswoman for Southern Cross Austereo said it would not require any employee to create an ad for the Yes or No campaign “if they are not willing to do so”. But he said, as a media firm it had a respons­ib­ility to ensure “all positions that are expressed in a reasonable and responsible way are given the opportunity to be aired” and it was prepared to run ads for both campaigns.

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