National myths have an enormous effect on us. They posed a significant danger in Thailand following the military coup in 2014, they’re why Greece has such a complicated relationship with Europe, and they’re the reason Americans just will not let go of their goddamn guns. They’ve even given rise to the phenomenon of “national branding”, the deeply suspect offspring resulting from an unholy union between advertising and nationalism.There isn’t a single nation on earth that has an uncomplicated relationship with its past, however when it comes to murky, schizophrenic and incredibly divisive national narratives, Australia really takes the pavlova. Federated 116 years ago, on the 1st of January 1901, Australia prides itself on being something of an underdog, using words like “larrikin” and “mateship” and “fair shake of the sauce bottle” to drive home its scrappy, loveable persona.
[Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd seen here deploying the vernacular to promote the visage of being #relatable.]
There’s heavy emphasis in Australian history on national mythologies that enshrine the hard yakka of colonial settlers and the sacrifices of the ANZAC soldiers in the First and Second World Wars. Much like the United States, Australia draws on the idea of being a land of opportunity – the “lucky country” – where anyone willing to put in a hard day’s work can build a life for themselves. Of course, the phrase “the lucky country” was originally coined to criticise the fact that Australia had lucked into its undeserved success on the back of other people’s innovation amidst a xenophobic and racist set of both foreign and domestic policy.
Yes, beneath the veneer of kangaroos, perfect weather and endless beaches simmers a toxic casserole of violence against both the Indigenous peoples of Australia and its newcomers, with nutritious ingredients such as massacre, kidnapping and the White Australia Policy. It’s a dish the whole country’s been chowing down on for some time, and although gains have certainly been made towards recognition and repentance, when you consider things like the Don Dale Detention scandal of 2016 or the horror that is Australia’s offshore “processing” for refugees, the whole thing still leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth. And an especially bitter note for many is Australia Day, which is celebrated on January 26th, the date that the ‘First Fleet’ of British invaders landed in Botany Bay – a fact that has led to critics referring to it as Invasion Day.
Into this culinary clusterfuck wades a now firmly established Australian tradition – the annual Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) Australia Day lamb advertisement. While the campaign is obviously focused on the commercial practice of selling meat (a moral quandary I’m not going to tackle in this article) rather than nation building, it’s a fascinating case study for which particular mythologies the organisation feels can be exploited for the most profit. Throughout the 12 years of its run, the MLA Australia Day ad campaign has made a point of drawing on a mixture of pop culture, current events and national imagery to sell lamb as the “national meat” of Australia. The first ad was aired in 2005, and espouses some interesting views on the qualifications required to be Australian:
Ah yes, there’s nothing like an angry white man denouncing un-Australianism™ in a rant laced with overt xenophobia and latent homophobia to really encapsulate the spirit of nationalism. The campaign really milked that particular niche for all it was worth, with this stunning specimen featuring three years later, in 2008:
In case you missed it, one of the real gems of a line in there referred to those who might protest the introduction of an ‘Australia Week’ by saying, “The placard-waving, police-bashing weed-worshippers may protest about it, but it’s nothing a few blasts from a water cannon can’t fix. They could do with a wash. And if they’re still too un-Australian to chomp a few chops with the rest of us, send them to Nauru. The refugee processing centre has plenty of palm trees they can hug.”
Notably, this was the first ad to feature someone neither white nor a dude at the front and centre of the campaign (with original spokesman Sam Kekovich relegated to a supporting role as of 2015), and it’s hard not to be charmed by anything featuring confirmed BAMF Lee Lin Chin. However the combination of the aesthetics of military incursions combined with Australia Day gets harder to swallow the more you think about it.
But things took a turn this year. Marketing director Andrew Howie apparently received the memo on racism not really cutting the mustard any more last year, as the launch of the MLA’s glorious Spring Lamb campaign demonstrated:
While it isn’t a part of the Australia Day series, it certainly represents a sharp turn away from the aggressive rhetoric those ads had established. Instead of the rigorous promotion of a single, rigid set of values as being truly “Australian” – and of those values as being worth violently defending – it puts forward lamb as the food that brings everyone together (a nod to religious and cultural dietary restrictions that prevent the consumption of pork or beef) as something that can unite a diverse Australia. Note the final beat, in which the line “Who was here first?” is met with the response “That’d be us!” by the Aboriginal participants of this multicultural barbecue. It leads us into the latest Australia Day ad, a dramatic departure from its predecessors for several reasons but most notably the fact that not a single person says the words “Australia Day”. In 2017, a year when the City of Fremantle has already made the decision not to celebrate Australia Day on the 26th, this is important.
So, what kind of ad is this? It’s certainly not without its flaws. And it’s had its detractors, who make excellent points about the exploitation of Indigenous suffering and glossing over the small matter of genocide in order to sell meat. But I’d like to look at it for a moment through the lens of national mythology. Indeed, this is Australian mythology presented as just that – an imagined version of the country’s origin story that feeds into an idealised version of its society today.
Bearing in mind that it’s designed to appeal to as many people as possible (in order to increase lamb sales), it’s interesting how closely they’ve been listening to community feedback in order to present a story that would have broad resonance. It’s come a long way from the leaked draft of the script that caused so much consternation back in November. And while it’s full of the daft and heavy-handed stereotypes that often seem to typify Australian humour, the most interesting thing this ad does is position its Aboriginal characters as the neutral, relatable main characters of the story amidst a cast of caricatures. By centering their perspective within the narrative – fictionalised and glossy though it is – the ad frames the arrival of foreign peoples on Australian shores as a story about Indigenous Australians, in which they are empowered with the right to welcome newcomers to their beach, and in which those newcomers must confer and interact with the Aboriginals as equals. It’s a direct challenge to the national myth that says Europeans “settled” and “civilised” a wild, uninhabited territory when they landed in Australia. And drives home the point that non-Indigenous Australians are all, at one point or another, boat people.
It’s also not really a story about January 26th – the day is pointedly avoided in conversation (“What’s the occasion?” “Do we need one?”) and really only nodded to for a couple of seconds with the “First Fleet” line. Instead it’s a story spanning hundreds of years (admittedly only a fraction of the 40,000 years Indigenous Australians have lived on the continent), and builds the idea of the nation of Australia as a party that everyone’s invited to. It not only builds it, in fact – it sells it. And not even the most bitter 1930s-throwback tantrum from white dudes who are upset that they’re not the only ones on television anymore can change the fact that it does, in fact, sell.
To be honest, the ad itself is not particularly virtuous. But its value can be found in the way it reflects changing (and profitable) attitudes in Australia. The country’s struggle with its national identity and diversity is far from over, and it’s probably a very long road until full recognition and reparation is given to all the people who’ve suffered under Australian nationalism – just last week, another illustrative advertising campaign saw a billboard featuring two young girls wearing Australian flag hijabs taken down after threats were issued targeting both the billboard company and the girls. But the MLA ads are perhaps a good sign that slowly, glacially slowly, attitudes are changing.
So, Aussies, don’t buy lamb on Australia Day – or do, whatever floats your (immigrant-bearing) boat. The more important conversation is about the existence of the day itself. But amidst the soul-crushing year we’ve had these last twelve months, maybe take a little bit of joy from knowing that maybe one day soon we’ll see change in the right direction.
PS: In case you haven’t seen enough batshit crazy lamb ads to sate your appetite (and possibly turn you off eating lamb forever), here is the 2013 ad in which the entire marketing team completely lost its damn mind: