BY ALEC SMART
It appears the writing is finally on the wall for Wicked Campers – notorious for renting out campervans adorned with provocative sexist and homophobic graffiti – after Australian transport ministers agreed on a nationwide crackdown on any of their vehicles displaying slogans deemed ‘offensive’.
At a meeting in Adelaide on Friday 2 August, State and Federal ministers recognised the need to nationalise laws that previously only applied in a few states. South Australian Transport Minister Stephan Knoll said “This national agreement we have achieved today means we will be able to solve this problem once and for all.”
Any vehicle found displaying an offensive or obscene slogan, including sexist, homophobic and racist messages, can be referred to the Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB – now known as Ad Standards) community panel for review. If the panel finds the slogan is in breach of their Code of Ethics, it would have to be removed within 14 days or the vehicle registration will be cancelled and it can be impounded.
Examples of Wicked Campers’ slogans that have stoked anger include:
A wife: an attachment you screw on the bed to get the housework done
I wouldn’t trust anything that bleeds for five days and didn’t die
Get out your tits or we’ll call it quits
It’s better 2 be black than gay cos u don’t have 2 tell your parents
The best thing about a blow job is the five minutes of silence
Fat girls are harder to kidnap
Anything is a dildo if you’re brave enough
Women fake orgasm because they think men care
Some states – ACT, Queensland and Tasmania – already have obscenity laws but officials can’t enforce them against a vehicle registered in another state. “We want to make sure that we close down these loopholes,” said South Australian Transport Minister Stephan Knoll, “and stop the scourge of these offensive advertising and materials on the sides of these campervans — but we need to do it in a nationally consistent approach.”
In November 2016, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, who six months earlier urged people to boycott Wicked Campers, announced that her government was responding to “longstanding community concern about inappropriate advertising on vehicles” by introducing new legislation to proscribe offending vehicles.
“With this legislation vehicles registered in Queensland that display sexist, obscene or otherwise offensive advertising will face the prospect of having their registration cancelled,” she declared.
It will be interesting to see if Wicked Campers survive this crackdown and can compete on a level playing field with a multitude of other camper van rental firms. Founded in 2000 by John Webb, their business model has until now relied upon continuous courting of controversy to attract attention, whether that be their Brisbane headquarters or outlets across the Americas, Europe, South Africa and Australasia, including their Sydney base in Alexandria, behind Green Square Station.
Although Wicked’s supporters argue that the provocative firm’s risible-yet-repulsive comments are simply sourced from pop culture and the smutty jokes would scarcely raise an eyebrow in a comedy club, the question remains whether that humour is acceptable when it’s broadcast on a public highway.
In July 2014 women’s rights’ group Collective Shout launched a petition calling for Wicked Campers to remove offensive slogans after Sydney mum Paula Orbea was shocked her 11-year-old daughter encountered a Wicked van with the slogan: “In every princess there is a little slut who wants to try it just once.”
“I think it promotes paedophilia,” Ms Orbea said. “I would say that it’s the most offensive because it targets girls, there is no way you can interpret that any other way.”
The petition, which attracted 120,000 signatures in just four days, led to an apology from Wicked who promised to remove ‘insensitive slogans’ – a promise they reneged upon.
In April 2015 Wicked released a statement mocking “the humour-inept, self-righteous moral majority” criticising them.
After guerrilla graffitists began altering their vans, Wicked lashed back with a statement “Wicked Campers will no longer permit individuals or groups, to in any way manipulate the artwork or general appearance of its vehicles or property. Any person or persons found to be doing so will be swiftly referred to the police/authorities.” However, this encouraged more guerrilla graffiti in New Zealand.
That same month, April 2015, Lonely Planet, the world’s largest travel book publisher, announced it would remove Wicked Campers from the latest editions of both their Australian and New Zealand guides. A spokesperson said: “Lonely Planet is a family-friendly travel company, and there are plenty of alternatives to Wicked Campers for campervan hire in both Australia and New Zealand.”
But misogyny and homophobia are not the only tactics Wicked Campers use to provoke controversy.
In February 2011 they were condemned by animal rights activists for attaching stickers with fake blood clots on their vehicle dashboards telling drivers “Kangaroo’s [sic], run the fuckers down!”
By way of defence Wicked Campers’ founder John Webb said: “Everyone’s got a different sense of humour,” insisting the intention was to enforce a road safety message. “We had vans swerving (to avoid kangaroos), which was damaging to everybody.”
An online petition was launched on Change.org and 1071 community members called on the company to remove the stickers, and thereafter the ASB, as case 0039/11, upheld complaints that it promoted animal cruelty.
In December 2011 they were criticised for encouraging stoned marijuana users to drive with a promotion that included an extra day’s free rental if you admitted to being a smoker. Their website said: “Smoke Weed? Love it? Well we love you so we’re gonna give you an EXTRA DAY FREE! Don’t drive drunk, smoke pot and fly!!! Your friends will be GREEN with envy when they see the awesome pics of you in your Wicked Camper!”
Multiple complaints upheld by ASB
Between 2008 and 2019, the ASB upheld numerous complaints against Wicked Campers concerning offensive slogans and advertising.
Before 2009, the ASB considered around 20 complaints against Wicked Campers that it struggled to regulate as Wicked often modified the wording on their slogans, removing or replacing swear words.
In 2009 the ASB censured Wicked Campers for three adverts, including a brochure that encouraged travellers to ‘snog an Aboriginal’ as it “suggested and encouraged activities that would be considered to be in breach of prevailing community standards of health and safety.” Another that mentioned gay sex was ruled “offensive, strong and obscene language, was not used in any humorous or otherwise mitigating manner.”
By March 2017, Wicked became the first brand to be subjected to 100 different case investigations by the ASB. In 71 cases the ASB upheld objections and ruled against Wicked. However, ASB CEO Fiona Jolly said the system of enforcement relied upon advertisers respecting their judgement, and yet “Wicked Campers is one of the rare advertisers in Australia that has chosen to operate outside the system and ignore determinations of the panel.”
In April 2019 a Wicked Camper with the message “The best thing about oral sex is the 5 minutes of silence” infuriated community members during an Anzac Day Service on Kings Beach in Caloundra on the Sunshine Coast. The vehicle was parked near people observing the traditional minute of silence to commemorate fallen soldiers. One woman told the Brisbane Courier Mail, “I’m unsure how a company is able to denigrate women in such a blatant public manner.”
Loads of complaints by Wicked customers are strewn across international websites, many detailing their poor customer service in dealing with broken-down vehicles, despite the fact the founder is a former mechanic.
In a forum on TripAdviser on 4 Oct 2018, one member complained about a Wicked Camper vehicle they hired: “The obscene and vulgar graffiti on every part of the interior was appalling. My children soon learnt the words like ‘f*#!ing c*nt’. The key ring was a buddha with the saying “don’t be a f*#%ing c*nt”
A company sticker on the car’s dash saying “Kangaroos, Run the F*#%ers Over”
And when I questioned the office about the quality of the vehicle I got told ‘Well, it is a backpackers car, you know?’”
Tide is turning
But the tide has turned against Wicked with the new nationally coordinated laws planned. This despite the fact that owner John Webb – who started out as a Brisbane mechanic – left his 4-bedroom house with sauna and pool in Coorparoo, Brisbane, in early 2018, and emigrated to a 3-storey mansion with views of Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown, New Zealand, where councils and camping resorts are also banning Wicked.
In January 2019 Queensland’s first successful deregistration of a Wicked Camper followed an ASB ruling that upheld a complaint that the slogan “You’re not a woman until humans come out of your vagina and trample on your dreams,” was derogatory to both women and trans people.
Also in January 2019, Wollombi Music Festival in northern New South Wales banned Wicked Campers from their event and branded them “pathetically unfunny and misogynistic.”
In a statement Wollombi said: “We’ve actively discouraged people from hiring them and encouraged patrons to look elsewhere, but this year we’ve decided to ban them full-stop. Not just if a van has a demeaning slogan. If ANY Wicked Camper turns up at the fest they won’t be welcome.”
On their Facebook page Wollombi added: “Disrespecting and degrading women isn’t funny or libertine, it’s just disgraceful. We look forward to being one of many festivals doing the same thing.”
Wicked Campers, which seldom respond to media inquiries, also ignored City Hub’s requests for comment.
Wicked’s woes in New Zealand
In New Zealand a campaign to ban Wicked Campers has been gaining momentum following a similar history of their provoking people with misogynistic slogans.
In 2014, Wicked Campers agreed to review one of their vehicles that featured Disney character Snow White taking a methamphetamine pipe from the witch instead of the apple that features in the classic fairytale
In 2015 the founder of pressure group Wicked Pickets, Liz Upham, said, “They’re saying it’s ok to kidnap a woman, they’re saying it’s ok to use gaffer tape against a woman, they’re pretty much saying it’s ok to rape a woman: that’s what their messages are. You couldn’t put this stuff on a fixed billboard, how is it acceptable for these slogans to be driven down our streets in front of us and our children?”
In 2016, three of Wicked Campers’ most offensive vehicles were banned from New Zealand’s roads, following a landmark ruling from the Classification Office that warned WIcked they could face a fine of up to $200,000 per offence if it continued to use them.
Meanwhile an anonymous vigilante spraypaint artist began covering up and replacing the messages on Wicked’s vans as multiple vehicles were altered whilst at the same time a series of caravan parks and councils banned Wicked’s vehicles from entering their campsites.
In April 2017 the New Zealand Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) expressed dismay that Wicked were not complying with their rulings – following at least nine complaints in 12 months, most of which were upheld. The ASA Complaints Board said: “Taking into account the wide range of people that could potentially view the advertisements… they had not been prepared with a due sense of social responsibility to consumers and to society and were likely to cause serious or widespread offence.”
New Zealand’s Department of Conservation removed Wicked from a list of rental companies on its website from which travellers can purchase campsite passes.