When Tourism Australia launches a new advertisement spruiking the country’s tourism wares, trained industry eyes open wide, usually in astonishment. Last year’s “Where the bloody hell are you?” campaign caused PM Kevin Rudd to claim it was “a rolled-gold disaster”.

Early this week, managing director Andrew McEvoy presented TA’s latest advertisement in a foreign correspondent’s forum. Commenting on its strengths in slightly dispassionate terms, no doubt aware of last year’s general reaction to bikini-clad Lara Bingle on a deserted beach asking us where the bloody hell we were, he appeared cautious. His approach indicates a degree of media wariness, citing budgetary restrictions as a prime mitigating factor in the advertisement’s creation. $175 million doesn’t buy what it used to, though Paul Hogan may have done it for less if paid into an offshore account. TA evidently views Hogan’s “throw another shrimp on the barbie” campaign from the ’80s as a historic template to be pursued ad infinitum.

This year’s advertisement, crafted by ad agency DDB Sydney, has chosen a similarly stereotypical approach in enticing visitors to Australia, hauling in the usual suspects such as a roll call of hoary Aussie icons: koalas, kangaroos, pubs and beaches with a few cultural moments sprinkled into its 90 seconds. A man playing a grand piano on a beach occupies a few seconds of screen time. Sydney’s Opera House claims the final scene, which is also the only point in which anything is sung in tune. The assortment of random characters in a pub or a light plane or standing among fish near a reef warbling off-key about there being nothing like Australia is ultimately merely atavistic ad-mongering.

This advertisement is like a composite of snips from an early ’80s tourism brochure, a nostalgia-infused snapshot of bogus memories. Barry Humphries channelling Sandy Stone would have implied the same, though with greater accuracy. We see Aussies drink beer in pubs, though our per capita consumption of beer continues to slide downwards. Mobs of kangaroos hop across a green paddock, despite the ongoing cull by professional shooters (snipers) of kangaroos for meat. A koala is cuddled like a cute bear, though the misnomer is corrected sotto voce. “It’s not a bear” is faintly heard. But let’s not talk about koala numbers continuing to decline through habitat loss, road kill and predation by feral animals.

Of course, no tourism brochure, advertisement will ever address political or environmental realities. To do so would simply be non-commercial. Airlines, hoteliers and tour operators need customers. Let’s not inform too well, they may not fly, sleep or come with us. Instead, let’s focus on our perceived strengths, a logical approach to advertising a business worth $25 billion per year, however stretched the credibility of those strengths may be.

What bothers me most about this latest advertisement is its reliance on outdated stories. It’s as challenging as a cream sponge baking contest at a CWA show, and as contemporary. I have nothing against sponge cakes but I notice most people in cafes eating friands. They drink wine instead of beer. They imbibe cocktails in funky bars. They volunteer to protect endangered bilbies or Tassie devils, cuddling koalas only after a bushfire rescue, mind the piddling. They attend performances in independent theatres, not the Sydney Opera House on opening night. In pubs they don’t raise glasses in collective joyous song. Rather they play pokies alone in the dark or dine in trendy noisy dining spaces.

When overseas guests visit me, yes they want to see kangaroos and koalas, to swim in clean water at lovely beaches, seduced by our overall international image, a land of marsupials, interesting indigenous culture and generally friendly folk. I note, however, that when they’ve returned home, they remember being most impressed by the level of sophistication, Australia’s enthusiasm for the arts, superlative food and our melting pot population comprised from all parts of the globe. The importance of seeing kangaroos and koalas recedes as fresh surprises captured their attention

This latest TA ad does have an indigenous element but it’s largely a white Anglo slant, no south or east Asian, black African or Middle Eastern faces are shown prominently. Given our migration history, I wonder why this slice of Australian life, according to TA and DDB Sydney, is so heterogeneous. If this latest display of inaccuracies posing as creative imagination is what accounts in part for TA’s current budgetary woes, it’s time to tap Paul Hogan for a favour. He may have a better idea of what constitutes contemporary Australia, worth a try at least, can’t do worse and there’s nothing like Australia for giving it another go.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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