Advertisers can be be proud about Australia Day, but it’s a big challenge

Review Partners' Paul Costantoura takes a look at Egard Watches' recent Gillette ad response, and considers what it means for all brands this Australia Day.

The recent response by the Egard Watches brand to reflect on what is good about a man has drawn the usual polarising responses. However, it also has lessons for our own debate about Australia Day advertising.

As a nation Australians have always been confused about out identity and advertisers have struggled to capture it in advertising.

Go back a few decades and most Australians felt we were defined either by our British origins or by the concept of ‘a multi-cultural nation’. Telstra advertising suggested ‘True Australians’ had relatives who lived in a farmhouse with big verandas and corrugated iron roofs. Everyone else made a long distance call to the folks in the village on the hill in the old country, or perhaps to central London.

Indigenous people tended not to have the recognition and respect they have today. There were few high profile success stories and the prevailing view of Indigenous communities was that they were disadvantaged and welfare dependent. Indigenous people were largely absent from our screens, in entertainment or advertising apart from token stereotyped roles.

On all these fronts things are different today. We are still confused about our identity, and attempts at expressing Australian identity usually draw heated criticism from at least one strident segment of the population.

But there is a greater sense of pride in being Australian, including in the diversity of our origins and our reputation throughout the world. Indigenous people are now far more recognised and respected for their achievements, culture, history and contribution to Australia than ever before. We can’t ignore the continuing tragedy of gaps in life outcomes for Indigenous Australians in mortality, health, education and incarceration, but Indigenous people have a much stronger voice than ever before.

So what does that stronger voice mean for advertising around Australia Day?

Since the end of last century Australia Day has become a focal point for thinking about what it means to be Australian. Brands started to warmly embrace ways to help us look at ourselves as we are, with humour and pride. The lamb industry led the way with successive campaigns, helping us reflect on what we were becoming as a nation.

Over the past few years, that has declined to a point where advertisers are now scared to even mention Australia Day for fear of the social media backlash. Media commentators have warned them that the tide is turning against brands – with no real basis in fact for their claims.

Our national research studies in 2017 and 2018 have shown that Australians are ready to embrace a greater recognition of Indigenous culture, history and contribution to Australia. They also show there is a very limited desire to change the date of Australia Day even if they have the facts of history explained to them.

Last year we found a very low level of support throughout the population for triple J’s decision to move the date of the Hottest 100, even though it was stronger among 18-24 yr olds. Linking this with a person’s political preferences explains why both Liberal and Labor leaders are standing back from the issue – because there is limited electoral support for the change (except among Greens voters).

This year we will again track changes in attitudes and how people spent Australia Day. We’ll also look in more detail at the segments that make up the population and how this influences attitudes towards changing the date.

There is little doubt that the extreme negative symbolism attached to Australia Day is preventing many Australians and brands from feeling like they should openly proud of all the things that make Australia great on Australia Day.

The more important question is whether this also has the potential to set back progress on reconciliation and equality of outcomes by creating greater divisions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

At the heart of the debate is whether the strong voices would be better directed at recognising the shared pride that should should represent a bond between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Whether we should be looking for and celebrating the great things about the past and present of both cultures in Australia today.

The current focus on Australia Day is that it represents all that is bad about our nation’s history. The challenge for Australian brands is to stand apart from the crowd, perhaps consider Egard’s ad and express their own version of shared pride in Australia, without being scared of an apparent social media backlash.

Paul Costantoura is CEO and research director at Review Partners.


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