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Get dumb: stop promoting Australia as cultured and clever

12/02/2014 LEE TULLOCH
Paul Hogan tourism ad © Get dumb: stop promoting Australia as cultured and clever Paul Hogan tourism ad

When Paul Hogan's celebrated "Throw another shrimp on the barbie" tourism commercials debuted in 1984, I recall that quite a few people in Australia thought them cringe-worthy. This was pre-Crocodile Dundee, before anyone could imagine that the little Aussie battler would become an international sex symbol.

While Hogan was hugely popular in his own country, some feared the image he was portraying was too crude. We didn't want to be known as a nation of good-humoured Ockers - we were more sophisticated than that! In 2006 when Lara Bingle sashayed across a stretch of hot sand and pouted the time-honoured words, "So, where the bloody hell are you?" many more were dismayed.

Australians were keen world travellers by the 21st century and we knew in our hearts that Lara's minxish little challenge, as charming as it was, wasn't going to play on the international stage.

Sure enough, the $180 million commercial was banned by the British ("bloody" was deemed a profanity) and by the Canadians (for unbranded alcohol consumption and the use of the word "hell".) It spawned dozens of parodies and was later called "a rolled gold disaster" by PM Kevin Rudd, whose office inherited it.

But the earlier Hogan commercials, which ran until 1989, have been a huge success in getting tourists here. Forbes magazine's 10 best travel campaigns lists the campaign at No.4, behind Pure New Zealand, Incredible India! and Las Vegas: What Happens Here Stays Here. That's pretty impressive, given the shrimp on the barbie is 30 years old.

But what is success? The campaign may have been hugely successful in doubling tourism from America in its first three years, but it has rather cemented our reputation as a beer-drinking, crustacean-tossing, over-suntanned people. It's an image that's outmoded - and I doubt it was ever true.

Subsequent tourism campaigns, such as bringing Oprah and Ellen here (and Modern Family, too, hooray), have instead been directed towards showing the physical and cultural diversity of the country, including our highly caffeinated inner cities. Tourism Australia's There's Nothing Like Australia campaign is evolving from luring tourists with stunning vistas into enticing them with our great food and wine offerings.

But it may be a lost battle. Is a good single-origin cappuccino enough to get people to travel to the other side of the world? When Modern Family films here, the plot is more likely to involve Phil's reaction to various creepy crawlies than Manny's connoisseurship of Melbourne's hipster lanes.

If you ask a young person in America or Europe what they know about Australia, they're still likely to reply that we have seven of the world's 10 most venomous snakes. What we've got going for us is danger - sharks, snakes and crocodiles. Add in a mitigating koala and kangaroo or two, and that just about accounts for what interests the bulk of first-time visitors. Even the There's Nothing Like Australia commercial hedges its bets with elegant people in dinner suits juxtaposed with a cute kangaroo hopping on a beach.

I humbly propose that Tourism Australia takes some inspiration from the brilliant Dumb Ways to Die public service campaign for Melbourne's Metro trains, which launched in 2012 and hilariously featured 21 animated characters killing themselves in stupid ways. Not only did it go viral with 68 million views, it garnered a slew of international awards. It could be reworked to show various ways to die in Australia - crocodiles, snakes, sharks, cyclones, dehydration in the desert and so on. Tourists would come running (or run screaming) I'd bet.

In short, it's pointless trying to sell Australia as the clever, cultured, gourmandising nation we know we are. Visitors don't care.

I prefer the attitude of the Americans. The US, surprisingly, launched its first-ever national tourism campaign in 2012. Comedian Stephen Colbert, parodying the commercial on his satirical TV program The Colbert Report, paraphrased its message as "America: Come or Don't. We don't give a shit."

Shrimp on the barbie ... the 'Come and say G'day' campaign from 1984 starring Paul Hogan helped put Australia on the minds of American tourists. © Get dumb: stop promoting Australia as cultured and clever Shrimp on the barbie ... the 'Come and say G'day' campaign from 1984 starring Paul Hogan helped put Australia on the minds of American tourists.
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