Unsold tickets, sponsor shortfalls and lots of grumbling by
Melburnians – with two days to go, that’s
the picture for the 2006 Commonwealth Games. The Games will probably still be a success, but if they
don’t do as well as expected it will almost certainly be due to false
expectations built up by Games organisers, rather than the event itself.

The fundamental problem seems to be that every major event
Ron Walker is associated with is promoted with a mixture of hyperbole,
obsessive over-statement, boosterism and gigantism – exactly the
things smart marketers avoid when talking to today’s cynical, jaded and
well-informed consumers. When you do use any of them (for example in
CUB’s
great big beer ad) you have to make sure you do it with wit and irony.

But the only irony here is that this positioning detracts from
things that really are outstanding – like the arts program and the imaginative BHP
Billiton sponsorship (a model for how sponsorship can be used to promote both a
company’s shareholder interests andmake
a difference).

The arts program is,
genuinely, one of the best and most diverse cross-cultural performing and
visual arts programs mounted in Australia. Boosted by doubling up appearances with Womadelaide, it features Jimmy Cliff,
Miriam Makeba, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and some fascinating exhibitions.
Yet the central positioning for the event is not as the best and most diverse
but as “the biggest free arts event” ever held in Australia.

The Games also takes itself so very, very seriously. Massive
fines for showing images of opening ceremony images; draconian regulation which
potentially interfere with protests and demonstrations (and even preaching);
petty-minded exclusion of an IOC delegate Ron Walker doesn’t like; vicious
attacks on critics such as the ANZ economist who questioned just how much
economic impact big events had; and a general defensiveness all seem to
indicate some deep-seated insecurity underneath all the bluster.

Taking itself so seriously also results in much of the
marketing effort being skewed towards telling Melbourne how inconvenient the Games are
going to be, with some 90% of
the population focused on worrying about crowded public transport and how to plan trips
around closed roads and priority Games travel lanes. One of the secrets of Sydney’s Olympics success
was making a virtue out of disruption and encouraging Sydneysiders to go out of
their way to be courteous and understanding. It actually worked and the atmosphere in the city was great.

Worst of all, the Games’ marketing and promotion makes
one wonder whether the Australian cultural cringe is really dead and buried. Sure, we
still cringe when we’re overseas and people regard us as US-sycophants, but
generally we are much more culturally confident than we were. But the
boosterism, hyperbole and insecurity of Games marketing suggest that the cringe
has crawled out of the grave and assumed “world-class” status.

Probably the Games will transcend it all and those who go
will have a great time. But did they have to make it so hard to enjoy something
quite so simple and straightforward as the Commonwealth Games?

Peter Fray

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