In praise of The Checkout

checkout logoA few weeks back, I gave a talk to a group of clients at an agency. As we chatted after the formalities, it turned into a bit of a mutual support group.

Several marketers around the table had been beaten up by The Checkout and were taking it seriously.

In my view, that is a thoroughly good thing.

Tonight marks the last episode in what has been a show that defines everything the ABC should be about. It contains the kind of content that self interest would prevent the commercial networks from ever airing.

The show has been one of the most thorough and entertaining ongoing investigations into consumer rights I’ve seen.

Created by the team behind The Chaser and production house CJZ (the home of The Gruen Transfer), at the heart of The Checkout is campaigning journalism, subtly disguised as satire. It also relied on what appears to have been a very successful collaboration with consumer group Choice.

In a very specific niche, it’s the first time I’ve seen the techniques used by The Daily Show successfully applied in Australia. Similar shows in other countries have been pompous and boring. The Checkout was neither. It’s been accessible and has consistently found innovative ways to explain complex consumer issues.

A couple of pieces stood out for me. First, Julian Morrow’s look at what ads in trade mags say about brand agendas:

And also Craig Reucassel’s brilliant piece on the regulation of complementary medicines:

If I have one criticism or disappointment, it is that a lot of these pieces did not get picked up more widely. Other than the takedown on Cadbury’s sleight-of-hand on product size, there were missed opportunities in getting follow-up media coverage.

If some of these investigative pieces had aired on Four Corners, they would have driven talkback radio and been picked up by the newspapers. It probably wanted more PR follow-through at the time of broadcast about the substance. There was a real opportunity to set the agenda.

To be honest, when I interviewed Reucassel and CJZ’s Nick Murray before broadcast , it was hard to picture how the show would go. I’m not sure they fully knew themselves.

And that was probably reflected in the way that, much like the first series of The Gruen Transfer, the show evolved.

The success of the show – which took place while CJZ co-founder Andrew Denton was on his sabbatical – also suggested that he has left his DNA in the company even if, as seems likely, he does not return.

This is a show which is bad for the marketing industry in the short term in that it alerts consumers to some cynical tricks. But if Media Watch sometimes improves journalistic practice by making people afraid to appear on it, I suspect The Checkout could end up serving a similar purpose if it gets another series. In the long term, that would be good for the world of marketing as a whole.

If ever there was a show screaming out for a recommission, this is it.

And make sure you watch the final episode tonight. It’s at 8pm on ABC1.

Tim Burrowes


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