F ORTY years ago I was a junior account executive with an Australian advertising agency in London. I remember one day riding in the back of a London cab with a couple of bigshots from the agency on the way to a campaign pitch. I was new in London and they were playing off each other for my benefit. They amused themselves with stories about disarming English businessmen by broadening their Australian accents. A broad Australian accent, they reckoned, with a sprinkling of ocker mannerisms and expressions, made English businessmen feel exceptionally good about themselves and acutely vulnerable to exploitation. Their theory was that by doing a parody of the provincial boor the English would habitually underestimate their wiliness. It seemed to me at the time a fairly risky way to gain trust, and I wasn't tempted to use it myself. Nevertheless, I see that some of this Australian advertising folklore seems to be still around and is perhaps driving the new Tourism Australia campaign.
The new advertising campaign launched last month to promote Australia overseas is straight out of the school of "disarm them with a parody of boorishness" brand of advertising. The modern form of this idea has its origins in stand-up comedy. You do a parody of a weak/confused/vulgar/foolish or otherwise compromised person, invite everyone to laugh at you, they laugh, they feel good and love you for allowing them to laugh at you, but all the time you convey a subtle message to them that you're not really like this and that you're really only joking about your weaknesses. This last part is important because if it's not there then you look pathetic instead of funny and the audience pities you and is repelled rather than attracted to you.
As I said, when I first heard of this strategy I thought it was risky. And, of course, stand-up comedy, too, is a notoriously risky occupation. But looking closely at one of the new Tourism Australia advertisements the campaign seems not so much risky as downright stupid. This advertisement is largely comprised of a photograph of a woman walking in a Tasmanian rainforest with some lines of type over the photograph. Three lines are politely written small print and are followed by a loud, graffiti- scrawl vulgarity. The substance of the copy is a parody of combined complaint and cultural boorishness. The complaint part seems to work all right as parody.
My problem is a question of whether the cultural boorishness is clearly parody or whether it simply provides evidence of collective Australian stupidity. This is what the copy says: "We've fertilised the ferns, Had the garden watered, And pacified the Tasmanian devil. SO WHERE THE BLOODY HELL ARE YOU? The bit that causes a problem, in my thinking, isn't the vulgarity at the end, but the line of foolishness about pacifying the Tasmanian devil.
Tasmanian devils are currently heading rapidly towards extinction. A widespread fatal cancer called devil facial- tumour disease has been spreading through the population and now afflicts devils on more than half of the island. The exact cause of the disease remains unknown at this stage, but chemicals used in Tasmanian forestry and agriculture are widely thought to lie at the root of the problem. If this suspicion turns out to be correct, and corrective action is not taken in time to save the devils, then collective Australian greed and carelessness will stand accused of driving yet another unique species into extinction.
So how does the supposed parody of disarming ocker boorishness look in this light? We're about to launch an advertising campaign telling the world that "we've pacified the Tasmanian devils". It's intended to be a joke. But the reality, apparently unknown to most of Australians, is that it's not a joke at all, and we have indeed "pacified" them by driving them to near extinction through chemical warfare on the environment. How long will it be before some big- name environmentalist abroad exposes all this?
Richard Gosden is a tutor in environmental politics at the Batemans Bay campus of the University of Wollongong.
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