An advertising campaign produced and paid for by a government department has been halted after being ruled offensive. 

Health New Zealand’s campaign to get people testing for hepatitis C involved numerous people flipping the bird to the camera and each other. It appeared on TV, online and on billboards.

While the idea was to show how easy it is to get a finger-prick test for the potentially fatal virus, that’s not how the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) saw it, after receiving a complaint from a member of the public

“The complainant was concerned the advertisement is using an offensive hand gesture which is long established as sign language for ‘F… You’, which has no place on a billboard which can be seen by children and also offends adults,” it said in its decision, released this week.

Check out the video here, which for some reason remains on YouTube despite the ruling (can’t embed it sorry, since it’s unlisted).

The campaign was launched with great fanfare by Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall in July, who called it a “vital next step” in eliminating hepatitis C, which affects around 45,000 Kiwis. 

When notified of the complaint, Health NZ said it moved to take down billboards and digital adverts “identified by members of the public as being near to schools or kindergartens”. 

The agency it worked with to develop the ads, oOh! Media, said it warned Health NZ this might happen – its solution was to make sure everyone giving the finger was “purposely depicted with smiling/friendly faces that make it clear they are using ‘the finger’ in a light-hearted, cheeky and friendly way, and are not directing an insult, threat or abuse toward the viewer or any other individual or group”.

But the ASA said none of this was good enough.

“The complaints board said it was not uncommon for the gesture to be used with a smile in a passive aggressive manner, which still had offensive intent… the placement of the advertisement was not sufficiently targeted to avoid children and those likely to be offended by the gesture.”

A spokesperson for the health service told the NZ Herald they had “no intention of causing serious or widespread offence”.