Meating diversity: a progressive charade

The new Australia Day lamb ad by Meat and Livestock Australia is out, and generating a certain amount of controversy. It feels like only yesterday I was opining for this journal on MLA’s spring ad, a cynical attempt by the company to appropriate the push for greater cultural diversity in the media to sell more of an unpopular and ethically dubious product. The previous ad, starring television presenter and journalist Lee Lin Chin, had seen the Advertising Standards Board (ABS) receive a record number of complaints. As of the time of writing, the latest ad has apparently attracted just five. Watching the two side by side, this disparity begins to look odd. The experience also offers an insight into the limits of liberal narratives of inclusivity and diversity.

In the first ad, a Hollywood-style military force initiates ‘Operation Boomerang’, a globe-spanning campaign to repatriate Australians living overseas in order that they can celebrate Australia Day at home with a lamb barbecue. The scene that drew the most complaints to the ABS was one in which a vegan is terrorised by a flamethrower-wielding squaddie. Though most complainants were probably responding to its overt violence rather than covert messaging, the scene’s implication was an old one: that to not eat meat is both unpatriotic and feminine, remediable only by a show of (masculine) force and a swift journey home for, presumably, a course of Soviet-style re-education in the ways of the White Australian Male.

The subsequent ad, which featured a culturally diverse cast, was the first sign that MLA had become sensitive to criticisms its lamb campaign was too white and blokey, a sign that, bizarrely, many on the Left took for a great leap forwards for progressive values rather than what it actually was: a hollow, though undeniably canny, bit of brand management.

The new ad arrives along similar tracks. It centres on three Indigenous Australians at a beach barbecue. They are the first there (the same joke was made in the last ad) but they are not alone for long. Their ‘cracking spot’ soon attracts the Dutch, French, Germans, Chinese, and – incredibly – the First Fleet. This sets up a commendable point – that we are all ‘boat people’ of one kind or another – but it’s quite a feat of historical revisionism to equate a prelude to the organised dispossession and destruction of Australia’s First Peoples with the various refugee flows of the second half of the twentieth century. (A leaked draft version of the script was even less tasteful.) Responding to this aspect of the ad, journalist and Darumbal woman Amy Mcquire told the ABC that:

[Using] the continual pain, the real pain felt on this date [26 January] for their own purposes, for a marketing stunt … that’s the most offensive part of it. There’s Aboriginal people dying in custody, having their children taken away, suiciding … and that oppression stems from that original invasion.

It’s hard to disagree, and yet the progressives who have chosen to defend the new ad repudiate it with their claim that it represents a victory for multiculturalism. Note the positive, even hyperbolic spin put on the ad by Mumbrella’s Alex Hayes:

MLA marketer Andrew Howie … has done more to champion the national conversation around diversity and inclusion than any other marketer in Australia

Or in the Guardian, which published a video of the ad under the headline ‘Australia Day lamb ad tackles Indigenous land rights and immigration’. Judging by this manner of reportage, you could be forgiven for thinking Howie a trailblazing Indigenous rights activist and the creator of some hard-hitting documentary. To the contrary, the ad is too tone-deaf and witless to ever succeed on the level of Babakiueria-ish satire. Hayes was, however, correct in at least one sense, writing that:

MLA has gone out of its way to include people. It’s hard to see how opening up to other demographics is not going to shift even more meat from the shelves.

That such a marketing strategy – embracing community demands for better representation in order to access more market niches and shift more product – should come as a revelation to both the ad’s supporters on the Left (‘I like diversity’) and detractors on the Right (‘I don’t like political correctness’) is passing strange. After all, this sort of thing has been a central plank of brand identity-making since at least the 1990s, when corporations like Benetton and Diesel began to appropriate the look and language of university campus politics for their glossy advertising campaigns. The message was that by buying a certain pair of jeans or trainers you could be not just a consumer but moreover an ally in the struggle for improved rights for this or that minority – as appealing to Millenials now as it was to Generation-Xers then. In the classic No Logo, Naomi Klein noted that:

The need for greater diversity – the rallying cry of my university years – is now not only accepted by the culture industries, it is the mantra of global capital. And identity politics, as they were practiced in the nineties, weren’t a threat, they were a gold mine.

MLA’s most recent ads don’t even represent the first time Australian lamb has been the subject of an identity-infused marketing campaign. The tagline of this 1990s ad, in which an interracial couple sits down to a dinner of tandoori lamb with the woman’s jokily skeptical father, is ‘Lamb: The Multicultural Meal’. Today’s ‘The Meat That Doesn’t Discriminate’ hardly changes a thing. As Howie put it in his statement that accompanied the latest ad:

As a brand, lamb stands for unity. Australia is the greatest country on earth and lamb is the nation’s favourite meat. Hence we have brought those two things together to prove we should be able to celebrate this great country every day of the year.

This is what Klein would call a ‘race toward weightlessness’, a key tenet of contemporary corporatism, which holds that the real work of companies is marketing, not manufacturing – that they are in the business of creating images rather than things. Howie’s claim that ‘lamb is the nation’s favourite meat’ is demonstrably false – Australians consume far more chicken, beef and pork – but it is the idea itself that matters, framed as it is by language that is both inclusive (‘lamb stands for unity’) and nationalistic (‘Australia is the greatest country on earth’).

And yet, shrewdly, neither Howie’s statement nor the new ad itself make any direct reference to Australia Day, which MLA’s summer lamb campaign traditionally presages. (When the Indigenous former athlete Cathy Freeman pops up to ask the barbecue’s hosts what the occasion is, the reply she receives is a rhetorical ‘do we need one?’) Perhaps, as some commentators have argued, the omission amounts to an intervention – a sort of condemnatory silence – in what is an intensifying public debate about the timing of the country’s national day. More likely, it is a sop to a certain kind of progressive that will only be noticed by the ad’s most reactionary critics.

As the ‘change the date’ movement continues apace – a movement we should all support – the same confusion that allows parts of the Left to embrace a lamb ad as an effective political intervention has also seen the crowdsourcing of more than $100,000 to reinstate a billboard promotion, featuring two Muslim girls in hijabs, for a government-funded Australia Day event in Melbourne. (The billboard was removed when the advertising agency responsible for it, QMS, began to receive threats from far-right groups.) As someone commented on the Muslims Say No To Australia Day Facebook page:

The billboard is legitimising an interpretation of this nation’s history that denies the experiences of its indigenous communities and their on going struggles around this day. Further, it entrenches the very racism that maintains the structures of power that this history has produced and which islamophobia is its contemporary iteration.

Something has gone seriously awry when symbolism trumps the traditional leftist virtue of solidarity, and in the name of a billboard that has been praised by Peter Dutton.

It may be argued that a change to the date on which Australia Day is held would in itself be little more than symbolic – an unworthy cause for agitation when there is still no recognition or treaty, and poor health and overrepresentation in prisons remain matters of national shame. But I’m persuaded by The Saturday Paper’s Erik Jensen, who wrote late last year that the date ‘is an issue so straightforward, so simple to fix, its hurt so needless, that it cannot be ignored’. Shift the culture, the argument goes, and the politics will follow.

That, in essence, is the promise the politics of identity holds. It has its place. But, as the ascendancy of Donald Trump and the worldwide rise of the Far Right show, the Left’s centralising of representation issues in lieu of an organised strategy of resistance – to environmental destruction, to the erosion of workers’ rights and social security, to the resurgence of laissez-faire economic liberalism, to all forms of discrimination – built across lines of race, class, gender and sexuality has proved inefficacious, even disastrous. As Naomi Klein wrote two decades ago in No Logo: ‘in the absence of tangible political goals, any movement that is about fighting for better social mirrors is going to eventually fall victim to its own narcissism.’


Image: ‘Lamb’ / flickr

Ben Brooker

Ben Brooker is a writer, editor, and critic based on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation. His work has been featured by Overland, Australian Book Review, The Saturday Paper, MeanjinKill Your Darlings, and others in Australia and overseas.

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