Married at First Sight represents the dark side of reach

Charlotte Berry, senior communications strategist at Innocean, looks at the contrast of reality and morality amid Australia's ratings juggernauts.

Nine’s Married at First Sight or MAFS has officially become Australia’s most watched program of the year, as 1.4 million Australians tuned in to the 2021 grand finale.

While entirely expected given the consecutive six figure ratings, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of despair. 

An anonymous comment in a recent The Sydney Morning Herald article nailed it: “This is both symptom and cause of why Australia, as a nation, has never reached anything remotely close to the levels it should have.”

Every season, the “social experiment” attracts consistent commentary on the representation of dysfunctional relationships, diversity (or lack of), the alcohol-fuelled verbal abuse and the violent social trolling of both men and women. Yet for the past six years, the Married At First Sight logo has taken pride of place in post campaign reports as the symbol of a successful campaign.

While the program attracts big audiences, in the midst of the most significant political and social gender reckoning our country has ever experienced, these questions must be asked: is it right for networks to be airing behaviour like this? And furthermore, is it right for advertisers to be funding it?

In previous years, it’s been easy to see the lighter side of reality TV, to excuse it as guilty pleasure after a hard day of work (we’ve all been there). But this year, in context of an inequality epidemic, the once harmless behaviour took on new meaning. One particular relationship depicted emotional manipulation and gaslighting so undeniable that it sparked a Change.org petition demanding Nine apologise for failing its duty of care of the female character (and I say ‘character’ because of just how sensationalised the storylines have become).

Despite receiving 4 times the number of complaints, 15,000 signatures and national media coverage over claims of domestic violence; it has been reported that no advertisers pulled their spend.

Instead, we continue to talk about what MAFS delivered. Not what it represents.

As agencies and marketers, we spend our entire careers dedicated to making conscious decisions about how our brands look, feel and behave. From the typeface of a sub line, to the colour-matching of a landing page, to the eye shade of an extra. We invest in best-in-class brand safety technology, ensuring our logo and advertising does not appear alongside violent or inappropriate content. We dissect sponsorship deals and brand partnerships with a fine-toothed comb ensuring our values are in perfect alignment. Yet when it comes to placement of our brands in prime-time programming, we don’t bat an eye lid. Reach trumps morality. Every time.

Toxic relationships are not only expected on television, they’re celebrated – from the blow-ups on My Kitchen Rules, to the bust-ups on The Block. Whilst we laugh and discuss the latest drama in group chats and pubs, we’re giving casual misogyny oxygen in popular culture.

Somewhere along the way, we have forgotten that great entertainment doesn’t have to be abhorrent to captivate viewers – the premiere seasons of some of Australia’s most successful tentpoles used to focus on the craft, not the cat fights. But unfortunately, like the boiling frog theory, we’ve been slowly heating up in a pot of ad-funded drama.

At what point will someone turn the gas off and hold entertainment media and advertisers to account for responsible representation?

Now the dust is settling on another season, we have an opportunity to think about our future contribution. It only takes looking at the success of shows on streaming services Netflix, Stan and SBS On Demand to see that progressive content is lapped up – in fact, it’s binged overnight. From tackling ageism in Younger, to females leading Killing Eve, to the inclusive treatment of the AIDS epidemic in It’s a Sin – programs don’t need to perpetuate archaic and dangerous stereotypes to win ratings.

While there have been many moments over the last few months, leaving many women feeling entirely helpless, let down over and over again by different parties, establishments and individuals – we must remember the power we have as an industry; we have a voice louder than many others.

Collectively, communications writes the cultural narrative. We have the opportunity to tell stories that influence, normalise and represent behaviour.

Media and advertising isn’t just a mirror, it’s a motivator. Just as we hold our politicians, leaders and journalists to account, so too should we uphold our industry to start making responsible choices.

As agencies and advertisers, we can choose how we depict popular culture through content and context – we can choose what our ad dollars are paying for. As publishers, we can create programming that fairly represents all Australians – still making people laugh, cry, even shout at their screen. As an industry we must hold each other accountable to re-write the narrative.

Together, we have a collective responsibility to the Australian public to stop perpetuating harmful messages and role models.

Economic gain does not need to come at the cost of entertainment or ethics.

We all have choices, let’s start making them. Together.

Charlotte Berry is a senior communications strategist at Innocean.


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