Lamb Chops, Diversity and National(ism) Narratives: Australia Day Advertising

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.

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Nothing bad has ever come from the combination of those two things! [x]

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.  

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It’s all especially nauseating considering who’s been re-elected to government recently.

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.”

Niiiiice.

Controversy has plagued the campaign in this decade as well. Last year’s ad drew the ire of vegans and Indigenous groups alike:

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.

cartoon-on-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.

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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.

#ChangeTheDate

CB

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:

 

The Good, The Ads & The Ugly, Apr 2016 – Galaxy/Audrey Hepburn

Do you want things? Generally, yes – but which things? Adverts attempt to make that decision for you but sometimes they go the opposite way and make you hate the corporate world more than you thought imaginable. This is The Good, The Ads & The Ugly.

This month’s ad has been around a long time but it’s still being shown so it’s fair game.

The ad itself is fairly inoffensive. Unsettlingly so. What’s weird is that it doesn’t feel weird. Yes, there’s a general attempt to sell the chocolate as some sort of elegant status symbol evocative of 1950s Italy and the rather odd tagline “why have cotton when you can have silk”. I’d never really associated chocolate with putting cotton in my mouth and I’m pretty sure the slogan writers didn’t know what cotton mouth was when they came up with it, but OK. I’m just saying it doesn’t immediately feel like Galaxy is being targeted at stoners with a bad case of the munchies.

Where this advert really comes into its own is when you realise it should feel weirder. And it really should, when you consider the main actress has been dead for over twenty years. We’ve become so used to this technology so quickly that it barely registers that this is basically what would have passed for sorcery at the turn of the century. (For anyone still catching up that’s the 21st century we’re on about.)

The first time I remember this sort of thing being used in advertising was this much more in-your-face spot featuring the late comedian Bob Monkhouse.

Now that one does feel weird. Maybe it’s because the computer rendering isn’t spot-on, maybe it’s because Monkhouse actively addresses his death, probably it’s a mixture of both those things. Still, it’s difficult to get too worked up about it, because it is in aid of a very good cause.

Whilst many celebrities’ existing bodies of work experience a resurgence after their death, not all stars relish the idea of being used to create new material post mortem. Robin Williams’ will, for example, explicitly states that his likeness cannot be used for 25 years after his death. Too bad for all the celebs who kicked the bucket before this technology was invented, but surely something a few more discerning artists have tucked away in their final legal documents.

After all, there’s no public backlash against this kind of resurrection of the dead for commercial reasons. What’s weird is that it doesn’t feel weird.

TF

The Good, The Ads & The Ugly, Mar 2016 – Walkers/Tear ‘n’ Share

Do you want things? Generally, yes – but which things? Adverts attempt to make that decision for you but sometimes they go the opposite way and make you hate the corporate world more than you thought imaginable. This is The Good, The Ads & The Ugly.

So this is what it’s come to. Ignore anything that’s actually going on in this advert. By now Gary Lineker’s crisp-based antics have been going on so long, they’re essentially a British institution, accepted as a fixture in our lives despite their obvious tedium. Like a snack equivalent of the shipping forecast or the House of Lords.

No, this time it’s the product itself which is fundamentally at fault. A crisp packet that opens down the side to turn it into a crisp bowl. Imagine the meeting that brought that creation upon us. This, my friends, is the crisp equivalent of that time they put tongue scrapers on toothbrushes.

Maybe one of the middle-managers had seen his intern or one of his teenage children do it and brought it to show his wide-eyed colleagues. Because this idea isn’t new. The essential idea has existed in life hack form (the ultimate arbiter of ideas) since at least the beginning of the decade. And I am broadly sympathetic to anyone whose job it is to attempt to innovate crisps. These people have to go home at night and look their loved ones in the eye in full knowledge of the fact that they are responsible for such ill-conceived abominations as Doritos Roulette.

But this idea is just so obviously unnecessary. At some point when you were a kid someone probably told you, because kids are stupid, basically Illuminati conspiracy YouTube channels walking around in human form, they would have told you that opening your crisp packet upside down was bad luck. But then when you reached your teenage years and you were still learning the many and varied ways of the world, still trying to order a pint of Carling in a convincing baritone, the pub would have taught you that there is only one way to open a packet of crisps for sharing.

pub-crisps

Behold the glory of the crinkle-cut laid bare.

Outside of the pub environment, a place I believe anecdotally to exist, you can simply open the bag as normal and offer it round for people to dip into. Whilst this new bag revolutionises that oh, no wait, Alan and Jamie still just offer the packet round as they would have done anyway. The new design has done literally nothing to change the way crisps are eaten.

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Alan Hansen has never seen anything so awful and he watches the England team for a living.

And nor should it. In these health-conscious times, crisps should be helping us reject our inner lard-arse by making it harder to reach them. Pringles have pioneered this technique, an advancement necessitated by the ridiculously addictive nature of their crisps. The narrow tube makes it increasingly difficult to grab the remaining crisps as time goes on. The only ones with nimble enough fingers to grab them would be children, except Pringles have this covered too because by then children’s arms are too short to reach the bottom of the tube.

So come on Walkers, save us from ourselves. Instead of a bag that turns into a bowl, how about one that turns into a sieve? Or one that turns into a blender and takes an index finger off if you scoff the food too fast? Step up to the plate, the arteries of Britain need you, the bowls do not.

TF

The Good, The Ads & The Ugly, Feb 2016 – Turkish Airlines/Fly to Gotham City

Do you want things? Generally, yes – but which things? Adverts attempt to make that decision for you but sometimes they go the opposite way and make you hate the corporate world more than you thought imaginable. This is The Good, The Ads & The Ugly.

There’s a theory in robotics which postulates the presence of the “uncanny valley“. For the uninitiated, the theory suggests that as robots look more and more human-like, people’s positive reaction to them grows. Then at some point the similarity becomes so close that they stop looking like humanoid robots and start looking like robotic humans. This almost-human-but-not quality is incredibly off-putting and people’s perceptions of the robots take a sharp tumble.

uncanny valley

From here.

Now keep that principle in mind as we watch this Turkish Airlines advert.

From the very outset, something seems slightly wrong. The voiceover a little too measured, the music marginally too dramatic and that certainly looks like a city, but which one exactly? And then the name hits you. Gotham. City. Ben Affleck, in character as Bruce Wayne, strides from a building to his waiting car looking every bit like a no win-no fee injury lawyer. Whilst part of your brain knows this is fake, the scene is uncannily realistic. Look – all the African-Americans are in service roles!

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Someone needs to talk to the “dark” knight about cultural appropriation.

We whizz through some more establishing shots which look like they’re lifted straight from the film, an inexplicably jarring club scene which is actually the only four seconds of footage that feels like it belongs in an advert (specifically any advert for spirits ever), and then back to Ben, sorry Bruce, on a plane.

Affleck’s career has had some ups and downs in its time and his casting as Batman was not met with unanimous joy, but he has been on an upswing recently. Let’s not forget that one of the last times he filmed on an aeroplane, he was fleeing the Iranian Revolution in his Oscar-winning film Argo. To go from that to doing conceptually forced sponsorship tie-ins seems like a definite step down. Just look at his face – it’s difficult to tell whether he’s brilliantly acting the cocky smile of a self-confident billionaire playboy or if the grim resignation of an actor who wishes he’d read to page 34 of his contract is showing through.

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Take me back to Iran.

Finally we exit the uncanny valley and the ad is over. But wait…

Another advert, almost identical to the other has been produced for Metropolis. Thankfully, Superman himself doesn’t make an appearance; Twitter would have imploded under the weight of “Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Yes… actually it is a plane” jokes. Despite the fact they are advertising exactly the same thing, someone has tried vainly to make these opening shots look different. Planes pointing different way? Check. Dusk changed to dawn? Check. Appreciably different not-New-York-but-essentially-New-York cityscape? Check, just about.

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It wouldn’t be surprising if one of these planes read “senilriA hsikruT”.

Speaking of which, does an airline really want to be associated with films which repeatedly destroy skyscrapers in faux New York? Is that really the connotation that Turkish Airlines want to invoke when people think about them? Perhaps they’re just trying to prevent people mentally autocorrecting Turkish Air… to the more newsworthy Turkish airspace. After all, it’s not the fault of the commercial airline that Turkey’s military became embroiled in an increasingly acrimonious spat with Russia, which revolves around the fatal shooting-down of a Russian bomber in November 2015.

Either way, let’s hope that we pull back from the uncanny valley of ads that look like films and go back to what we’re more used to – films so full of product placement, they look like adverts.

TF

The Good, The Ads & The Ugly, Jan 2016 – Nescafé/A Big Start

Do you want things? Generally, yes – but which things? Adverts attempt to make that decision for you but sometimes they go the opposite way and make you hate the corporate world more than you thought imaginable. This is The Good, The Ads & The Ugly.

Remember when the internet first took off in a big way? Not like Netscape and the Space Jam website but the proper internet like YouTube and IMDb and Kim Jong-Il looking at things. The place was full of new ideas and creativity, Kickstarters and flashmobs. And then television got its grubby hands on the ideas and restaged them but with vacant actors playing out duller storylines.

In this advert two guys purport to give an extreme wake-up call to their mate “sleepy Alex”. (Side note – no-one has ever had the nickname sleepy Alex for the simple reason that it is incredibly shit. Sleepy Alex does not get a lot of shagging done. Sleepy Alex does not lose his shit after taking half a gram of coke. Sleepy Alex is so boring he doesn’t ever warrant a nickname, even, paradoxically, “sleepy Alex”.)

So these guys, for a laugh, these guys have brought an orchestra into their mate’s back garden. Not a proper orchestra mind, just enough of an orchestra so that there can be some pick up shots of the various instruments. The stoic tuba man who comes closer to drowning the more it rains, the vaguely posh violin woman who doesn’t really need to read the sheet music. All these people have run through the logistics of setting this up: parking their cars on the front street, rearranging the chairs, tuning their fucking instruments in a cacophony of noise, without waking Alex.

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Go to bed with your doors wide open like that and you’re likely to wake up to a totally different surprise.

Then, as they proceed to bleach any happy memories of Morecambe and Wise from the association with Bring Me Sunshine, Alex finally rises and greets them at the window, naked enough to imply he’s just got up, but not so naked as to be unbroadcastable. “Oh my gosh,” he says, in a tone suggestive of someone who is attempting to decipher a semaphore message.

He joins his mates downstairs, his mates who have such shit banter that they think essentially providing free entertainment and refreshments is an amazing prank. They drink a cup of Nescafé together, the message presumably being that it will wake you up like an orchestra and the lack of other parallels being subtly ignored. The orchestra doesn’t form into a debilitating addiction, preventing you from functioning on a normal level without a regular hit or use child slavery to produce its products. Child slaves are, notoriously, terrible at the bassoon.

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Slavery bantz.

All too soon it’s time for Alex to deliver his final killer line. “Un-believable,” he says, sounding every inch the man who can believe it. A man who has spent so long on this shoot he can no longer imagine a garden not being filled by an orchestra. A man whose own garden is now so eerily silent he can’t sleep at night. A man no longer in need of a Nescafé Big Start.

TF