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Dick Smith’s Foods — a resort to desperate commercial Hansonism

It’s a de facto marriage made in populist heaven — the unholy union between the little Aussie huckster Dick Smith and the crass, unquestioning tabloid TV of A Current Affair.

The two were at it again like rabbits on Monday night. “Dick Smith giving away his money!” screamed the promo, “How you can cash in!” Minutes later, Tracy Grimshaw’s intro promised we’d all learn about “his latest campaign to help battlers”.

And what was this latest iteration of Smith’s legendary philanthropy? No more or less than a tacky cash giveaway stunt to promote his current commercial venture, the ailing Dick Smith’s Foods brand.

The ACA cameras followed Smith (in a silly hat) going from door to door as he handed over $500 to anyone who had one of the DSF products in their fridge or pantry. It was five minutes of pure promotion that not even Smith’s money could buy. No genuine news value, no matter of public interest — yet Channel Nine handed over this priceless exposure gratis and has the gall to call it “current affairs”.

ACA and Today Tonight buy anything Smith is selling because they know he’s a recognisable character sure to deliver them the kind of upbeat pap that feeds the prejudices of their audience. We’re asked to forget he’s a multimillionaire. Instead, Smith is portrayed as a plucky, idealistic little underdog fighting the righteous battle on our behalf against those evil foreign multinationals.

It’s all rolled-gold baloney, and, to their great discredit, A Current Affair plays along. The reporter of the “story”, Brady Halls, wasn’t beneath telling his viewers utter falsehoods. A few to be getting on with:

  • Halls described Smith as a “manufacturer”. No, he isn’t. Dick Smith Foods is purely a licensing and marketing business. Despite all his guff about “our farmers”, Smith doesn’t grow, manufacture or even package the supermarket lines that carry his moniker and grinning dial. He just owns all the DFS names, label images and marketing apparatus and then licenses them to anyone who fits their model and is prepared to pay.
  • Halls asserted that Smith “does it all purely to support Aussie farmers, factories and jobs”. No, it’s a private business. He does it all principally to make money.
  • Halls stated, as fact, that “Any profits he gives away”. No, he doesn’t. Even DSF itself only claims that an undisclosed percentage of the profits is donated (to undisclosed recipients). Given that cash giveaway promotions usually signify a failing retail venture, there’s unlikely to be much profit anyway.

The hard commercial truth is that, on their own admission, Dick Smith Foods is struggling because it hasn’t been able to secure sufficient market share to guarantee prominent supermarket shelf space in the major outlets. Coles doesn’t carry DSF products at all.

So, for once, it seems Smith’s talent for capitalism might fail him. His standard modus operandi is to found a business, build it up on the back of his undoubted entrepreneurial flair and talent for publicity, then sell it for a handy profit.

He sold his chain of Dick Smith electronics shops to Woolworths; he sold Australian Geographic magazine to Fairfax (it’s now owned by ACP). No doubt he’d now love to sell Dick Smith’s Aussie Foods but, after more than a decade of sputtering underperformance, buyers might be hard to find.

More troubling in the broader social context is that faced with possible failure, Smith has climbed even further onto the patriotism bandwagon — the last resort of the commercial scoundrel.

If you’re desperate for sales, drape yourself in the Australian flag, print it on your products and point-of-sale material, call your lines “Bush Foods Breakfast” or “OzEmite”, repeat the phrase “Genuine Aussie” on every label — and hope the shoppers will come.

But Smith’s conversion to all things Australian has come somewhat late. His fortune is founded on the chain of eponymous electronics shops he sold in 1982 for $20 million. Most of the products he’d stocked were dirt cheap imports from Asia, thereby helping to put the local electronics manufacturing industry to the sword. There were no hand-on-heart “Made in Australia” pledges from Smith back then.

Similarly, Australian Geographic magazine was initially printed by Dai Nippon in Japan, although plenty of local printers could have handled the job. During that period Smith also appeared in TV commercials for Holden cars — made by General Motors, a foreign-owned company that repatriates most of its profits to Detroit.

Today there’s a faintly sinister overtone of strident nationalism about the way Smith promotes his current venture. The Dick Smith’s Foods website describes its products as “As Australian as you can get”.

There’s now also a spin-off site titled What a Con, which Smith introduces thus: “I have set up this website to expose the rip-offs by foreign multinational companies that exploit Australian consumers.”

On its home page the site features the Australian flag with a “PATRIOTISM” slash across one corner. Elsewhere, Smith rails against overseas companies with “no loyalty to Australia”. There are sections devoted to “Foreign Ownership in Australia Ever Increasing” and “Losing our Aussie Language”. These simplistic, ultra-nationalist positions stir an unsettling echo of Pauline Hanson.

A month ago he cranked up his Aussie Foods marketing to hysterical levels with newspaper advertising copy that shouted “Australian farmers are having to plough their crops back into the ground! We’re fighting back.”

He may only be trying to turn a dollar, but it’s the unthinking complicity of the popular media that’s the real concern here. The TV tabloids amplify Smith’s opportunistic jingoism to a vast national audience. And, deep down, just how far removed is all this from the “I was born here” provocations that we’ve heard before?

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  • 1
    Justin Arnold
    Posted Wednesday, 9 May 2012 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    What the article forgot to mention is taht Dick Smith Foods is actually owned by Sanitarium which is owned by the US Based Seventh Day Adventist Church and that Dick Smith Ozemite is actually manufactured in New Zealand

  • 2
    David Gill
    Posted Wednesday, 9 May 2012 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    Oh great! The same Sanitarium which doesn’t pay tax in Australia either. So the whole thing is doing less than nothing for Australia :(

  • 3
    Coaltopia
    Posted Wednesday, 9 May 2012 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    When will “Made from local and imported ingredients” by required to label the percentage breakdown?

  • 4
    marcus
    Posted Wednesday, 9 May 2012 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    he’s a multimillionaire” but he’s not a multiBILLIONaire = he’s an underdog.

  • 5
    Charlie Maigne
    Posted Wednesday, 9 May 2012 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    I’m gutted that they didn’t get around to my place - we’re never without a box of Bush Foods Breakfast in the pantry!

    (It’s just for the taste, I assure you, and not for the tacky iconography. Given the choice, I’d prefer not to be greeted by Dick’s head grinning at me from the pantry every morning.)

  • 6
    Microseris
    Posted Wednesday, 9 May 2012 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    It is difficult to “secure market share” when the two majors stack their shelves with home brand crap from where ever they can get it the cheapest. If its an Australian product you can guarantee they have screwed the producer to the wall on price under threat they would be banned altogether if they didn’t acquiesce. Otherwise its all corn from China, canned vegies from Vietnam, etc.

    The shoppers who are either oblivious or complicit, have helped send producers into foreign ownership or to the wall.

  • 7
    uberin
    Posted Wednesday, 9 May 2012 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    Dick Smith foods has never been owned by Sanitarium,Sanitarium Health Food Company was granted a 10-year license from 2002 to manage the Dick Smith Foods brand.As of 2012 Smith himself is back managing the company

  • 8
    rachel612
    Posted Wednesday, 9 May 2012 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

    Dick Smith Foods has never been owned by Sanitarium Health Food Company, an international brand owned by the Seventh Day Adventist Church.
    Sanitarium Health Food Company, an international brand owned by the Seventh Day Adventist Church, was granted a ten year license from 2002 to manage the Dick Smith Foods brand, and drove the brand into the ground, from $80m. turnover to $8m in five years.
    As of 2012, Dick Smith discovered he was a patriotic Australian with an urgent need to get his brand back in shape, and returned to managing the company …
    Opportunistic jingoism? Or a fiercely secular stand against n inept, indifferent international religion?
    You decide …

  • 9
    AR
    Posted Thursday, 10 May 2012 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    I would pay more for Oz (anything, food or manufactured goods) IF it ensured Oz jobs, in Ozland. Unfortunately we cannot trust that simple equation, given the propensity to sell iconic brands to o/s interests.
    I would buy DSF (btw, typo alert in the first bullet point He just owns all the DFS names) foods except that they appear loaded with sugar, whether the yeast extract or the beans or the cereal.
    Drop the sugar and shit and I’ll seek them out, on principle.

  • 10
    Edward James
    Posted Thursday, 10 May 2012 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Pull your head in David! Is this correct JUSTIN ARNOLD
    Posted Wednesday, 9 May 2012 at 1:52 pm | Permalink
    What the article forgot to mention is taht Dick Smith Foods is actually owned by Sanitarium which is owned by the US Based Seventh Day Adventist Church and that Dick Smith Ozemite is actually manufactured in New Zealand. Just went to Coles and then Woolworths. Woolworths was not happy I was taking photos of products on their shelves. but it is interesting how the two main players are spliting what get shelf space.

  • 11
    bluepoppy
    Posted Thursday, 10 May 2012 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    The problem with using terms like Hansonism or ‘strident nationalism’ in this context is that you’ve lost the argument before you start.

    There are numerous advantages for the Australian economy to buy locally grown food and not just for environmental reasons: food governance, biosecurity (legitimate) and to support domestic agriculture. Quick bring out the firing squad.

    I cannot see a problem with any Aussie owned brand product, even Dick Smith, using the mantra locally grown or locally owned as a marketing tool (as long as it is not false advertising). Locally grown and owned ideology is becoming very common including a big push in the US for local produce, especially in their current economic hard times.

    One of the best books on this was Barbara Kingsolver’s - Animal, Vegetable, Miracle:
    A Year of Food Life which looked at, among other things, the benefits of shopping close to home (not just nationally but regionally). The advantages pertain to all nations, many of whom are facing increased problems due to unfair trade agreements and globalisation. There is nothing wrong with trade but it should not come at a cost to the local populations who may not reap the benefits of the food they grow.

  • 12
    beanbagdan
    Posted Thursday, 10 May 2012 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    So Dick is now threatening to come to your neighbourhood with wads of cash in search of his products in your pantry…well he won’t be doing that unless ACA follow him with their camera crew again!!

  • 13
    beanbagdan
    Posted Friday, 11 May 2012 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Oh the other thing that Dickhead Smith said during his ACA piece was “look there’s a Winnebago, a great Australian company” LOL, what a dick

  • 14
    Daryl...
    Posted Sunday, 13 May 2012 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    You can rely on Crikey to take any opportunity, no matter how small, for a swipe at Australian entrepreneurs. You should be ashamed of yourself. Don’t panic though, if the current Canberra Criminals get to hang on for much longer we will make it to be like Greece. (Entitlement without effort and refusing to pay the price)

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