A billboard advertisement just outside Nelson’s city limits that questions COVID-19 vaccines and mandates has been ruled to be in contravention of Canadian ad standards.
The billboard, which shows two children and advertises the website for Vaccine Choice Canada, was paid for by Kootenay Freedom, a West Kootenay-based group that describes itself as supporting “medical freedom, vaccine choice, informed consent, privacy rights, unbiased journalism, transparent science, free speech, democracy and the opening of the economy.”
A complaint about the ad’s content was lodged last August with Ad Standards, which administers the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards.
In a Dec. 7 decision, Ad Standards found the image “plays upon fears to mislead consumers,” “made inaccurate and otherwise misleading claims,” and “displayed a disregard for safety by encouraging unsafe or dangerous practices through discouraging vaccinations, recognized as an important and necessary pandemic public health measure.”
By doing so, the ad contravenes three clauses of the advertising code.
Matt Wynne, the Nelson resident who made the initial complaint about the billboard, said he was pleased with the ruling’s outcome but remains concerned by its influence over people who are hesitant to receive a vaccine.
“I think it’s important that we live in a free society,” said Wynne. “It’s great for people to get freedom of choice about whether to get vaccinated or not. But those choices need to be made with factual information and not be influenced by manipulation. And that billboard is manipulative.”
In an email to the Nelson Star, Kootenay Freedom’s Kevin Shaw said he views the ad in two parts.
On the right-hand side, it encourages questioning of safety mandates because “these measures are inarguably having a detrimental effect on our children.” The other side, Shaw said, “encourages its viewers to familiarize themselves with the dangers associated with the COVID-19 vaccines.”
“The Ad Council seems to be saying that the degree of danger must be proved to them to their satisfaction as if they are some sort of arbiter of truth,” added Shaw.
“I reject the notion that this Ad Council is in any way qualified to make a judgement such as this, or even that it is their role to do so.”
Health Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization recommends that children ages five to 11 receive Pfizer’s vaccine.
Despite the ruling, there is nothing preventing the billboard ad from staying put.
Ad Standards can’t compel Kootenay Freedom to change or take down the ad, and is limited to releasing the reasons for its decision on its website. That ruling also cites Vaccine Choice Canada, not Kootenay Freedom, as the advertiser.
Vaccine Choice Canada did not reply to requests for comment.
Wynne said he believes the ad is an embarrassment for the city, and contributes to misinformation about the pandemic.
Seventy-eight per cent of people in the Nelson local health area ages 12 and older have received at least two vaccine doses as of Jan. 25, according to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control. Only 36 per cent of children ages five to 11, however, have had their first dose.
A crowd of hundreds, meanwhile, protested vaccine mandates in downtown Nelson on Saturday.
“It’s very easy for things that look legitimate to get out there and really confuse people,” said Wynne. “I think it seems like there’s a lot of that happening in our community for one reason or another, and it’s worrying.”