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MELBOURNE-A flood of protest surrounding an ad campaign showing water faucets running has washed up in court. And the wave of controversy over the advertising that aired during an Australian drought could exacerbate an investigation of the entire ad industry.

The campaign was banned by the Advertising Standards Council in December for its "wanton and irresponsible waste of water." One spot depicts a slighted girlfriend getting even with her man by turning on all the taps and leaving his house filling up with water.

The campaign for plumbing fixtures marketer Dorf Industries included a 15-second follow-up spot in which the boyfriend returns home to find water spouting through the keyhole. As he inserts the key there is a "whoosh" of water, and the screen goes dark with the tagline: "Dorf, wherever water falls."

The spots, created by Box Emery & Partners, topped the council's list of most-complained-about ads for 1994 because they offended consumers suffering severe water restrictions during the drought.

The council declined to say how many complaints were received.

After the council banned the spots-a legally binding move-Dorf and Box Emery appealed to the Federal High Court to reinstate the commercials.

The court upheld the ban in December, but left the way open for a further appeal.

In his decision, Judge James Ryan found that a judgment on whether an ad is offensive to prevailing community standards should be made "by the relevant specialist tribunal." In this case, that is the council.

A quasi-independent body consisting of industry and government representatives, the council is overseen by the Media Council of Australia and its code of ethics.

But the Media Council itself is under scrutiny. The panel, composed of media owners, "accredits" advertising agencies and is itself the subject of a six-month investigation by the federal government's Trade Practices Commission into the legitimacy of the accrediting system.

Industry insiders suspect the investigation could end up lasting two or three years.

Under the current process, the advertising agency actually pays the media-essentially Media Council members-for ad time. Agencies accredited by the same Media Council get a 10% discount in return.

The implication for the Dorf case, therefore, is that not only is another unflattering investigative light shone on the industry, but the case might not be settled until the Media Council inquiry ends.

At press time, the Dorf case was returning to court to hear the company's appeal.

"Our client is quite gung ho about pursuing its right to air this commercial," said Mike Emery, chairman of Box Emery, an accredited agency that's probably Melbourne's largest independently owned shop. "It could boil down to what is the Media Council's authority."

Dorf is currently airing four other commercials during TV news weather segments, all with the tagline "Dorf, wherever water falls." But none show an implicit waste of running water.

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