The Good Society’s milkshake video brings all the hidden agendas to the fore

Chief creatrix at Represent, Cathie McGinn, examines the Department of Education's failed attempt at navigating a serious issue.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.

There are two particularly dismal things about being a feminist killjoy: firstly, the fact that beneath the simmering rage at patriarchal injustice is an ever-present, undimmable glimmer of optimism. “It’s not the despair, I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.” The second is that being right means someone is having an awful time.

It’s hard to say who’s having a worse time in the wake of the launch of new ‘consent’ education platform The Good Society. The comms team at the Department of Education? The actors? The agency? Every Australian survivor of rape, sexual assault and domestic violence who has just seen their experiences trivialised and diminished like so much spilt milkshake?

The outraged response to the now-viral ‘milkshake consent’ video, hasty withdrawal of content from the site and some mealy-mouthed statements about “community and stakeholder feedback” hint at a backstory that is by turns baffling and enraging.

The content itself hits some deeply odd notes. When creative executions have been through too many rounds of testing, there can be a flatness, a stiltedness; an idea that’s lost its spark. Conversely, when ideas haven’t been developed with deep insight into, and empathy for, their intended audience, there is often a moment when you find your jaw unconsciously clenching. You can’t look, but you can’t look away.

Content created for the most sophisticated generation of young people yet to walk the earth, with access to limitless digital entertainment, needs to be honed, smart, informed and relatable. The Good Society reveals a gulf in understanding of the intended audience, the context and their culture.

The decision to use an older, white, male Attenborough pastiche as the Voice of God narrator; the wooden acting; the robotic dialogue, the tone-deaf choice of female as aggressor (despite domestic violence and sexual assault being overwhelmingly perpetrated against women by men)… all these choices give rise to questions about intention and agenda.

Anyone who’s been through the pitch and procurement process for government tenders – at local, state or federal level – will know that the requirements are lengthy, complex and call for meticulously detailed submissions. It can sometimes seem that the credentials needed to win the contract for a particular project are that you’ve already delivered it.

And that, to an extent, is as it should be: public money must be invested carefully, with safeguards against dodgy dealings, and to ensure results are achieved.

The Department of Education, Skills and Employment tender was awarded to Brisbane digital agency Liquid Interactive in 2017. The original budget of $2,128,500.00 increased in 2018 to $3,790,600.00. 

I hadn’t heard of Liquid before yesterday; they have some solid credentials in learning platform development, and the case study for their work with Beyond Blue is impressive. However, there’s no indication that they have expertise in creating communications around the complex issues of intimate partner violence, sex and consent education.

What you’d expect as part of any service delivery for a government contract is to see evidence of extensive stakeholder engagement, consultation with subject matter experts and audiences.

It’s more than just a nice-to-have; it’s part of the due diligence carried out when spending millions of taxpayer dollars, and it’s frequently a legislative requirement. This tender was titled Online learning solutions – Educating against Domestic Violence measure. 

The funding was part of the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, and its objectives are clearly stated, to: ‘Promote healthy and safe relationships and build gender equitable values through initiatives for children and young people.”

But where is the accountability to the taxpayer if the outcome is not achieved? And what if the funding is used to advance a different mission?

The organisations and advisory groups cited as having been consulted claim to have had little or no input into the content. The Foundation for Young Australians is quoted as saying “it had introduced the government to a young person in their network who may have taken part in a confidential reference group process.”

I spoke to a few year 11 and 12 students – which perhaps means this piece is grounded in deeper audience insight than the work it references?

“It makes us feel patronised, like they underestimate how much we already understand. Any analogy often downplays assault,” they said, demonstrating how little they need sugar-coated metaphors.

As someone with lived experience of sexual assault and domestic violence – like one in four Australian women – I found nothing on The Good Society that resembled the vast amount of literature and resources about DV provided by specialist organisations I’ve read in the past; nothing that would have been helpful in processing or reflecting my experience; no tools or resources to help me to access support, other than external links.

The metaphors seem to intentionally obfuscate complex issues of coercion and control. And more insidiously, the platform is full of morally loaded messages like “sexual desire … can really distort our thinking.”

Under a section entitled “Social enablers of abuse: gender” I read, with mounting horror:

“for instance, a gender norm in a relationship might be that the man should be the primary breadwinner and should be entitled to direct the affairs of the family, while the woman should be a domestic worker, look after the smooth running of the household and ensure that everyone’s peculiar (sic) needs are taken care of.

“This model could work fine if both people were able to freely agree on the division of labour, but if one of the members doesn’t agree, then the couple can wind up fighting, and the social norm can make the status quo partner feel entitled to punish the other partner to keep them in line.”

The deeply religious beliefs of the men signing off on this work (former and present Education Secretaries Alan Tudge and Dan Tehan), and their impact on public spending, are beyond the purview of this website.

However, what is troubling for our industry about The Good Society is the implication that lucrative government contracts may be awarded based on ideological alignment rather than capability and credentials. Or that the vital process of consultation, research, analysis, CX design and testing may all be abandoned if the guy who signs the invoice sees fit to override it.

And the effectiveness of the work is now measured not on achievement of communications objectives, or delivery of behavioural change, but the promotion of a hidden moral agenda.

It’s going to make hitting your KPIs rather challenging.

Cathie McGinn is the chief creatrix at Represent. She is a former employee of Mumbrella. 


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