In the British TV series Blackadder goes forth, the pompous General Melchett announces a brilliant tactical plan to win the First World War.
Immediately, Blackadder asks if the new plan ‘involve[s] us climbing out of our trenches and walking slowly towards the enemy’, which was, he says, the plan that ‘we used last time, and the seventeen times before that.’
Melchett nods with enthusiasm. ‘That is what so brilliant about it!’ he says. ‘We will catch the watchful Hun totally off guard! Doing precisely what we have done eighteen times before is exactly the last thing they’ll expect us to do this time!’
It’s hard not to recall General Melchett when one contemplates Woolworth’s #freshinourmemories debacle, a promotional campaign centred on the Anzac anniversary.
In the wake of so many other well publicised hashtag disasters – the Bill Cosby meme campaign of 2014, the New York police department’s #MyNYPD initiative, the #QantasLuxury fiasco and so on – the supermarket giant’s decision to invite the public to use its image generator seems akin to sending its brand on a bayonet charge against heavy machine gun fire. Yet it would be wrong to understand #freshinourmemories as a cautionary tale about the orneriness of social media – that is, as a blunder pertaining primarily to form. On the contrary, what made the Woolies episode so compelling (in a car-crash-on-the-digital-superhighway kind of way) was that it unwittingly but perfectly integrated form with content in a campaign that didn’t merely evoke the Great War so much as re-enact it.
Many have commented on the crassness of using the Great War – a catastrophe that Siegfried Sassoon dubbed ‘the world’s worst wound’ – to boost takings at a supermarket till. Minister for Veterans’ Affairs Michael Ronaldson denounced the campaign for trivialising the Anzac name. He stated:
It was not appropriate, they did not have permission and, under the Protection of Word Anzac Act, I’ve got to authorise the use of the word Anzac and I did not provide it for those who are looking for purely commercial benefit.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten agreed:
At the hundred-year anniversary where there’s such great attention in terms of the sacrifice of our first Anzacs, I certainly wouldn’t want to see any commercial interests exploiting Anzac for their own purposes.
But, of course, Woolworths are far from alone in recognising the commercial potential of the commemoration.
The Murdoch press, for instance, urges you to remember the Anzac via ‘mateship coins’, which are ‘available for purchase for $3, along with The Daily Telegraph or The Sunday Telegraph newspapers, at participating newsagencies.’ Presumably the venture has been approved by Ronaldson – but it’s hard to see how it’s not for the ‘commercial benefit’ of the newspapers. The Twitter account https://twitter.com/AnzacProfit provides a long list of other Anzac cash-ins, from the ‘Deluxe Camp Gallipoli Anzac Swag’ to various Anzac-themed football jerseys.
Why should we be surprised? War has always provided opportunities for some, even as it means sacrifice for others. Many companies made fortunes out of the Great War, a conflict that created a massive demand for industrial products even as it allowed local businesses to muscle in on markets previously controlled by Germany. That’s one reason why – contrary to the usual myth – Australia has never been as deeply divided as it was between 1914 and 1918, years that saw two deeply polarised plebiscites on conscription and a massive NSW general strike.
In that sense, then, #freshinourmemories can be seen as exemplary rather than anomalous – a reminder that there’s no human misery from which someone won’t try to make a buck and that profiteering was widespread during the war years. Indeed, Woolworths’ specific slogan actually tells us more about the Great War than the anodyne rhetoric of the official commemoration. In one sense, the tag ‘fresh in our memories’ sounds immediately awkward, not merely because no-one has ‘fresh’ memories of ancestors who died a century ago but because the notion of ‘freshness’ clashes so grotesquely with the reality of the trenches.
Think of Robert Briffault’s description of the Western Front:
Mile after mile the earth stretched out black, foul, putrescent. Like a sea of excrement…. It was one vast scrap-heap. And, scattered over or sunk in the refuse and mud, were the rotting bodies of men, of horses and mules. Of such material was the barren waste that stretched as far as the eye could see.
Obviously, Woolies intended its slogan to tie the Anzac commemoration to its longstanding ‘fresh food people’ tag. But that, too, has a particular historical resonance, inadvertently replicating a bitter comparison that soldiers often made: the notion that they were fresh meat sent into an industrial grinder. During 1917, for instance, French soldiers protested about being sent back to the front by baahing like sheep – they were, they said, lambs about to be slaughtered. The most famous of the anti-war poets, Wilfred Owen, uses the meat image again and again. In ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’, he describes soldiers sacrificed like lambs, while in ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ he writes of men who ‘die as cattle.’
The French writer Jean Galtier-Boissier gives a good account of what trench warfare actually meant in his description of an artillery barrage:
[the soldiers] have the air of supplicants who offer the napes of their necks to the executioner … The peals of thunder in all those moments had revealed the terrible disproportion between the engines of death and the tiny soldier, in whom the nervous system was not up to the magnitude of those shocks.
So there’s a kind of grim logic in the association that #freshinourmemories made between Great War soldiers and products on a supermarket shelf, an unwitting acknowledgement of how an industrialised war did not create heroes in an old-fashioned sense so much as transform participants into anonymous, interchangeable consumables, to be used up and discarded by a system much bigger than any individual. In other words, the very cynicism and crassness of the Woolworth’s campaign inadvertently gave us a glimpse of the reality of war, in all of its ugliness. It’s no wonder it was immediately shut down. In the hundredth anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign, we don’t want to discuss reality. We prefer instead what Owen called ‘the old lie’ – a sanitised narrative about honour and sacrifice – rather than an acknowledgement of what the Great War actually entailed.