The ABC’s policy of refusing to acknowledge brand names in expressions like “Optus Oval” and “Pura Cup” has long been a standing joke with many presenters, not to mention a significant restriction on open discussion of marketing issues.

But the inconsistency and hypocrisy of the practice was never more obvious than during a heavy weekend of sport in Melbourne. Last Saturday morning, back to back news items on ABC Local Radio referred to, first, the final of the AFL “pre-season cup” to be held at “Docklands” and, second, the performances of the Ferrari and Red Bull teams in practice sessions for the Formula One Grand Prix.

How can it possibly be inappropriate or unacceptable for an ABC newsreader to say “NAB Cup” and “Telstra Dome” but perfectly OK to name Ferrari and Red Bull in the very next breath?

It’s a no-brainer that participation by a company like Red Bull in motor racing is entirely about brand positioning – as the prototypical energy drink, Red Bull sponsors high-energy and extreme sports. It follows, therefore, that every single mention of the Red Bull racing team on the ABC over the course of the Grand Prix event can be considered a piece of marketing communications initiated by the brand owner.

Significant and undeniable mass-market brand positioning objectives also underlie the participation of car makers like Honda, Toyota, BMW, Renault and even Ferrari. No doubt ABC motor sports commentator Will Hagon – who definitely has “pole” when it comes to self-indulgent, name-dropping drivel – also spent hours of airtime on “our ABC” discussing things like Bridgestone tyres and Zylon anti-penetration panels (both trademarks, naturally).

The reason for the brand ban has never been entirely clear to me – does the ABC not want to play into the hands of evil marketers, or does it not credit its audiences with sufficient intelligence and self-restraint to resist their siren songs? Nor can I discern any marketing or consumer behaviour logic behind the decision to give an Austrian drink maker or a US tyre maker preferential status over an Australian bank and an Australian telecommunications company.

Of course, names like AFL and Formula One are themselves brands, based on highly protected trademarks and commercial properties, so how do they escape the ban? Why aren’t ABC announcers instructed to refer instead to “the national Australian Rules football competition” or “the elite international motor sport event being held at Albert Park”?

And, yes, I said hypocrisy. Consider the ABC’s own commercial activities. The national broadcaster has spawned a number of immensely successful brands: the Wiggles, PlaySchool, Triple J, The Hottest 100, and The ABC Shop are just a few examples of those from which the ABC earns revenue directly and through licensing agreements. Every mention of those lovable Bananas in Pyjamas on ABC TV, Radio or websites helps drive profits for a wide variety of commercial entities that pay the ABC to use the images of B1, B2 and Rat in a Hat.

Don’t let’s forget that the ABC also does tremendously well out of leveraging the equity of many other brands, both in terms of its programming and via sales through ABC Shops: think Little Britain, SeaChange, Planet Earth, etc.

The bottom line (whoops, that’s a bit commercial!) is that, in practice, the ABC’s policy simply amounts to a form of censorship, applied inconsistently and indiscriminately. It’s essentially unworkable and, in my experience, something that neither consumers nor the ABC audience wants or needs.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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