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Sep 13, 2010

Hamilton: Gruen’s gift to the advertisers

The Gruen Transfer encourages Australia’s young "best and brightest" to devote their lives -- not to finding a cancer cure, teaching indigenous kids or campaigning against climate change -- but to making clever TV ads for front groups created by the tobacco industry.


The television ads by the ‘Alliance of Australian Retailers’ depicting battling shop-keepers crying foul over government plans to introduce plain packaging for cigarettes have been revealed as a sham, all part of an exercise cooked up by the tobacco industry in cahoots with a PR firm known as The Civic Group.

The exposé shows again just how grubby the advertising-marketing-PR complex can be. But you wouldn’t know it from the ABC’s paean to the advertising industry, The Gruen Transfer. The popular TV show sells itself as “a show about advertising, how it works, and how it works on us”, except it’s hard to see how it has done anything useful other than provide half an hour of light entertainment.

The subtext of The Gruen Transfer is that advertisements come out of a switched-on, fast-paced industry full of creative people with their fingers on the pulse. And that’s no accident. In developing the program, its creator Andrew Denton, of production company Zapruder’s Other Films, said he wanted to counter the view that people in advertising “have no moral centre”. On the contrary, he maintains, the industry employs “many of our best and brightest”. His show puts them on display in a brilliant apologia for advertising.

Little wonder then that the advertising agencies have fallen in love with the show, the one that promises to expose their dirty secrets and “defuse” commercial messages. It’s become the “don’t miss” program, and the two agencies chosen to do the weekly “pitch” are the envy of the industry.

Some companies now aim to have their ads featured on The Gruen Transfer as part of their marketing strategy, chasing the 1.5 million viewers on a TV channel where the absence of advertisements switches off the bulldust filter.

There’s regular panelist Todd Sampson, CEO of Leo Burnett. He’s the funky guy with the edgy T-shirts who represents the conscience of the industry. Wringing his hands, he fearlessly bags ads that transgress some hidden ethical boundary. Except that he always pulls his punches; after all, the miscreants are his mates.

When not agonising over the ethics of advertising Todd is helping clients such as Philip Morris to sell more cigarettes, McDonald’s to sell more fast-food to kids and Macquarie Bank to win more influence over our governments. But, hey, he might be advising Big Carbon clients such as Caltex on how to polish its image, but he balances the ledger by backing the “Earth Hour” campaign to stop global warming.

The other regular is Russel Howcroft, MD of George Patterson’s Y&R agency (clients include everything from Big Carbon, property developers, the gambling industry, purveyors of junk food and the Queensland Government Department of Main Roads). Russel is refreshingly honest — he seems to think “ethics” is a county in the east of England. If it sells the product it’s ethical, he reckons, because by promoting mass consumption advertising stops recessions, which are bad.

Todd and Russel not only have fun on the ABC but the Gruen gig turns out to be a nice little earner for their agencies. You can’t buy that sort of profile.

But putting them on the spot is Gruen host, Wil Anderson. He presents as the cynic, ever ready to expose the hypocrisy and dishonesty of an ad with his barbed one-liners. Except that by making us laugh he defuses our outrage. He’s the sort of critic the industry loves, because he knows that, in the end, it’s all just good fun.

The advertising industry recognises it has a PR problem — people who join it joke to their friends about “selling out”. If a bunch of creatives were sitting around brainstorming about how to spruce up the industry’s image, they could not have done better than come up with The Gruen Transfer. Cheers Zapruder.

The ABC does not carry advertising, but it provides the industry with something more precious than access to the airwaves — respectability. So as if to fulfill Denton’s claim, The Gruen Transfer encourages Australia’s young “best and brightest” to devote their lives — not to finding a cancer cure, teaching indigenous kids or campaigning against climate change — but to making clever TV ads for front groups created by the tobacco industry. Now that’s a PR coup.

*Clive Hamilton is professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University based in Canberra.


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37 thoughts on “Hamilton: Gruen’s gift to the advertisers

  1. Neil Walker

    Bill Hicks said it best *swearing warning*: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gDW_Hj2K0wo

  2. Delerious

    Sorry, don’t agree except The Gruen Transfer is fun. Do you think you are preaching to the converted. Do you think the advertising industry is amoral. Just remember people/organisations hire them. A bit like attacking the prostitute as apposed to the user. The advertising industry is the ultimate thinking-out-of-the box industry. It would be nice if the people could channel their brilliance into good as apposed to evil but you can’t win all of the time.

  3. martin english

    G’day, Clive
    I’d expect a bit more depth from a University professor, something a bit deeper than Advertising bad, so anything using Advertising bad. Anyway, it did make me curious – where your grocery money comes from ?

    If (because I really don’t know) you got paid for this and other articles you write – both online and in dead trees – then aren’t you actually profiting from Advertising ? That makes you worse than the ABC, it puts you right up with that crusty old capitalist Russel Howcroft.

    BTW, expecting either Russell or Todd to be anti advertising would be a bit silly, if you’d ever watched the show. The only stereotype they miss on the panel is the Art Director with a pony-tail.

  4. Phil

    O Clive, cheer up a bit mate. It’s a TV comedy show not an ethics committee.

  5. Pete from Sydney

    it may be a must watch for the advertising industry but there’s another 1.480 million that watch it each week and don’t work for the advertsisng industry Clive..seriously, the modern consumer is the most cynical ever, they take everything with a grain of salt, the show is clever and fun, and that’s it

  6. Ern Malleys cat

    I thought the Election series was incredibly shallow.
    Where they had a chance to actually critique the whole drift to saturation negative advertising, most of the panellists just seemed happy to judge which would suck more people in.
    Interesting also were the two ads which got praise for being intelligent and persuasive — the pitched Greens ‘I Think’ one and the Brazilian ‘This is the truth’ one. But as Todd Sampson pointed out, the Brazilian candidate received less than 1% vote.
    Everyone seemed happy to conclude that dishonest and negative works. Says it all.

  7. Frank Campbell

    The original Savonarola wasn’t big on humour either. Burned at the stake for failing to see the joke. Any joke.

  8. Stevo the Working Twistie

    You’re right as usual Clive. All shows on Our ABC should feature earnest people in sensible shoes discoursing in an academic fashion about topics that are crucial to… umm… themselves. Hint – go to bed early on Tuesdays and tune in for Sunday Arts instead. Much more your style, and I’m sure you’d get on a treat with the other four people who watch it.

    (Disclaimer – I actually do watch the ABC on Sunday afternoons sometimes, but I don’t wear sensible shoes, and hardly ever talk to the other three).

  9. Pete

    Pretty much my feeling too. All one needs is a few weeks in upper secondary school learning how to make an advert to get the gist of this entire show and practically any point it will ever attempt to make. Apart from showing the occasional YouTube video from overseas, it’s little more than a marketing tool for marketing, which I agree is a little odd because all the ABC should be marketing is themselves (oh, and their products on Apple iPhones and iPads, of course… but that’s another story)

  10. baal

    The Gruen Transfer is nothing more or less than the Will Anderson Show – who probably wears ‘sensible shoes’ – sorry STEVO but your phrase is code for ‘progress-hating Greenie in a beanie’ – you know like lighten up guys it’s a trivial universe where fear and loathing should be shoved to the margins – together with subversive art – land for chrissakes leave us chuckleheads alone to have ‘fun’.

  11. Gweeds

    I wouldn’t berate Gruen too much. After all if we are going to do a show on advertising we really couldn’t do it on a commercial channel, it has to be on the ABC. I think the show does give an insight on how advertising works and the fact that it has become a show where advertising companies want to participate is a reflection of the success of the show. If it was a ratings flop this wouldn’t happen. Also i think that most ABC viewers would have fairly high BS detectors. I suspect that most viewers may see through Todd. These people are not there for charity, it’s good for their business and Sampson is advertising himself. I mean he appears on the commercial Channel 10 on the 7pm project and he’s going to be slimed on ‘Talking about your generation’.

  12. Anth

    Charles Sturt … that’s almost like a uni, right Clive? I know they make pretty reasonable wine and cheese out at Wagga. But with someone like Clive on the books, surely they stay away from grubby business like … advertising.

    They don’t? Well what do you know, CSU has a Bachelor of Communications (Advertising). And of the 24 subjects, there’s even one – not a whole one mind you – related to ethics.

    But what’s this? The course blurb says “The course familiarises students with the key areas of the advertising industry: research, strategy, client management, media, creative and production. The course is industry-based and practical with students developing practical skills.”

    Surely, Clive, you don’t mean students from your own university are gaining professional experience by working with that same industry you’re bagging in this article? Clive, do you teach in the ethics course? Do you tell them they are wasting their time and should be curing cancer or teaching indigenous kiddies rather than sullying themselves in the advertising mire? No? Strange that.

    People who live in glass houses – or ivory towers – should be bloody careful about chucking rocks, Clive.

  13. sean

    You’ve got to laugh at the usual gaggle of people who’s critical faculty is about as sophisticated as a 5 year old child. Cconsumer empowerment’, where do you buy your groceries, etc.

    Advertising is one of the most demeaning professions, and you only have to ask people who’ve worked in the industry to find this out.

    I understand why the industry is so delighted with gruen. Its like being in some self loathing purgatory all your life and suddently being told you’re actually really really healthy and interesting.

    Thanks clive, for reminding us that the descent into commercial manipulative culture is not all there is.

  14. sean

    [They don’t? Well what do you know, CSU has a Bachelor of Communications (Advertising). And of the 24 subjects, there’s even one – not a whole one mind you – related to ethics.]

    Anth, mate, if youre gonna adopt such an obnoxious patronising tone, you’d better say something content wise that matches it. So clive teaches at Charles Sturt and they have an advertising course there. Whats more that course, has a cornflake box ‘ethics’ course. My god mate, with deductive skills like that you might get a gig on a Current Affair. LOL

  15. furrybarry

    Ooooh, you’ve hit a raw nerve there. Maybe a few PRs and ad execs not liking this one.

    I agree with your analysis of Gruen. It’s the shiny coating of deception that only advertising “professionals” could give themselves.

  16. Anth

    Sean, mate, if youre gonna adopt such an obnoxious patronising tone, you’d better say something content wise that matches it 🙂

  17. macadamia man

    The Manager,
    Grot shop,
    “Dear Sir,
    I am sorry to hear you have not yet received your supply of edible
    furniture. This can only be due to the non-arrival of supplies. I am, however, deeply disturbed to hear that you have not yet received our new range of dentures for pets, which are proving so popular with bloody silly idiots who put little doggie dentures in glasses of water beside their kennels, and little budgie dentures in even smaller glasses of water beside their cages…”

    pace Reginald Iolanthe Perrin and his muse, David Nobbs

  18. evidently

    According to a well a known american marketing academic, there are two and only two types of people who choose to work in advertising. Those that desire the glamour of shooting advertisements, hanging around celebrities, exchanging clever nothings that turn to gold in the retelling. The other is the type who wants to get into advertising to learn the secrets of the power of advertising so as to use it against itself and save the world from the evils of unneeded consumption. Many are known to fall different ways in the ensuing moral battles, and there those that just fall into advertising from extended secondments from other fields who suddenly wake up quoting that famous david burne rap ‘you may find yourself asking… how did I get here?’
    The academic reference serves to explain a lot of Zapruder calling for less contempt for the industry. The rest can be explained by power families, created by vacuums in media competition, in which the hero of the tremulous and burnt out, Denton, now circulates.
    Needless to say, the Gruen Transfer has nothing to do with, and is nothing like advertising, and I for one think it is another great example of Australian media-ocrity dressed up as something original.

  19. Pete

    What I wanna know is… does anyone seriously think Gruen will fully cover the extensive influence WW2 propaganda had on the modern advertising artform?

  20. Edward Thompson

    I have written to the ABC demanding that they comission a weekly show dedicated to public ethicists telling us all how clever their ideas are. The limited forums currently available to public ethicists to inform people of their clever ideas (and/or lament the fact that no one pays any attention to said clever ideas and the clever public ethicists that generate them) is nothing less than a national disgrace.

    Australia would be all the poorer without public ethicists to have such impressive ideas that we should all be suitably impressed by.

    Hopefully the ABC will rectify this egregious oversight in short order.

  21. Syd Walker

    You’ve articulated well the things that make me feel uneasy about this show. It can be amusing and it’s certainly well-produced. But it legitimizes the low road of fast bucks, lotsa cynicism and damn all moral compass.

    What next, I wonder? The BBC already provides a show glorifying spooks. We already have 24×7 war hype and propaganda.

    The banking industry lacks good PR courtesy of the public purse. That’s very unfair. There has to be a buck in making usury seem fun, groovy and public-spirited.

  22. dogspear

    Dunno if my hasty reply was un-printworthy or the gremlins got it,
    but ffs, watch the youtube clip NW posted if you don’t know what’s in it. If you do know what’s in it and you aren’t very pissed off with backward looking, trend following, irrational, market perverting, make a buck for the sake of it behaviour of all kinds, then watch it again.
    Sure there are good people undercover in “politics” and “advertising”, but they aren’t exactly industry darlings…
    I know I’m not perfect, but in this day and age there isn’t must justification left for misty eyed, means to an end romanticism.
    Still, the massively sponsored foot soldiers have immense power. I can’t wait for a sports superstar to say; “I’ve worn Nike shoes for years because the suckers gave me bazillions, and you know what? They are massive cunts and I prefer to go barefoot. They wouldn’t recognise spontaneity if it beat them to death with their own shoes. Fuck em’.”

  23. evidently

    you should work in advertising – that’s f*cking genius.

  24. Frank Campbell

    The joke’s on the taxpayer, innit? Clive Calvin gets to ejaculate over us sinners from his pully-pulpit whenever he feels like it…and gets paid for it!

  25. jonathonoake

    Concept for a new TV show

    Name: Professor Clive’s Truth Bomb

    Precis: Brilliant, famous and dashing public ethicist (‘Clive’) from world-leading educational institution located in Albury-Wodonga stands in front of live audience and delivers monologue on everything wrong with Society. On any given episode this could include commerce, advertising, internet libertarians, the price of stamps, Kids These Days, and Why Isn’t the Number 26 Here Yet I’ve Been Waiting Nearly 20 Minutes For Pete’s Sake

    Schedule: 5pm-midnight Monday to Sunday (inclusive). ABC1

  26. Pete

    These proposed TV shows would certainly make a change from the wall to wall ‘Can’t take any form of criticism whatsoever’ that appears daily in the major carrier of advertising that is NewsCorp. Who knows, it’d probably even rate.

  27. rhwombat

    Dear me Clive, you have singed the Mad Men’s collective beards haven’t you. Slainte.

  28. Harvey Tarvydas

    Dr Harvey M Tarvydas

    Good stuff Clive Hamilton.
    It is not a majority of so called ‘brightest and best’ new or old that understand ‘ethics’ more profoundly than the clichéd version.

  29. Harvey Tarvydas

    Dr Harvey M Tarvydas

    @EVIDENTLY — Evidently a thinker.

  30. benjaminmcmahon@gmail.com

    Not sure how Clive sleeps at night with the horseman of the apocalypse: the climate mafia and the ad men plotting to destroy society.

    The public makes up their minds about what to watch.

  31. stevennp@optusnet.com.au

    Thanks Clive. Not sure I agree with you entirely (can’t help but still find the show fun). But you’ve given me another angle to watch the show from and that’s a good thing.

  32. Becky Freeman

    I’m not sure the best and brightest are working in PR and advertising….the campaign to derail cigarette plain packaging has blown up in smoke and left all involved looking incompetent, foolish, and completely lacking in ethics. Maybe it’s more like the worst and dullest?

  33. mikeo

    Thank you Clive! (I thought it was just me). We live in a culture which is totally commercially saturated. The ABC is about the only alternative there is. There is no chance of any sceptical analysis of the ad industry appearing anywhere else. Rather than just cozying up to the industry, the ABC would better fulfil its charter by sticking the boot into the industry occasionally. What about a couple of sceptical voices on the GT panel?

  34. Dogs breakfast

    What a crock. If you watch Gruen, aren’t already in advertising, and don’t pick up some new information from this show your cynicism has closed down your mind.

    Of course advertising is evil blah blah, but getting some insight into how beelzebub thinks and works must be beneficial in helping to avoid the question “What does that apple taste like Adam?”

    But we’re all talking about advertising, so we must be evil as well by Clive’s apparent definition. Advertising may be evil, and Gruen Transfer is about advertising, but the case has not been made that ‘The Gruen Transfer is therefore evil’.

    This is a seinfeld debate.

  35. sheldon levis

    I agree with the article. This is a lost opportunity for really looking into how advertisers see the rest of us . . . it has become little more than a vehicle for apologist Russell and I’d-be-a-cynic-if-I-wasn’t-in-the-game-but-trust-me-anyway Todd to defend the industry and shelter it from any real criticism.

  36. Nick

    Thanks, Clive, your analysis is spot on. I am very surprised at the extremely aggressive reactions of so many posters. You have touched many raw nerves there. These posters are not unbiased. One could conjecture that they are the very people who are cynically exploiting gullible consumers every day.

  37. truth trooper

    I too am very surprised at the extremely aggressive reactions of so many posters. I fear they doth protest too much to be unbiased about this article – a very liberal party type reaction to criticism (fear, panic, paranoia and extreme crankiness). I have enjoyed one or two episodes of the GT, and really appreciate Clive’s take on it. We live in such a sterile media environment, a healthy dose of cynicism doesn’t do anyone any harm.

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