From an Aboriginal Art market point of view, the ads put the outback (where many of the best Aboriginal Art galleries are located) and Indigenous people at the forefront of tourists minds which can only be a good thing. Whether the campaign will be a success though, only time will tell. It's certainly a big risk and a very different approach. At least they're trying :)
Tourism goes walkabout
October 17, 2008 12:00am
ITS no-spin name spells it out: Tourism Australia is meant to sell Australia to tourists. Lots of them.
These two commercials, released this week and destined for screening in 22 countries, are invitations to a church, not a holiday. And to a very exclusive, family-unfriendly church, with not even the hint this time of Lara Bingle's famous bouncing breasts.
Sigh. Loosen up, guys.
Once again, the taxpayer-funded Tourism Australia has fallen to the modern temptation to preach, rather than please. Forgetting its last disaster, it's spending $40 million to advertise not Australia, but its own chic, green-tinged sensibilities.
Result? Go to my blog to see them for yourself.
What's most remarkable is not that director Baz Luhrmann's new ads are the first for Tourism Australia that spend more time on New York and Shanghai than on the country they're actually meant to be selling.
It's that the only glimpses shown of Australia are of the very bits few foreign tourists bother to visit.
Forget Sydney, with its bridge or Opera House. The Gold Coast, with its hotels. The Reef, with its resorts. Melbourne, with its MCG.
Ha! That's just where the crude crowds in their novelty T-shirts flock by the planeload. This time we're flogging places where few tourist buses go and no trains reach - outback places where jaded urbanites fancy they can commune with the Nature gods of tribal peoples, far from modern man and his buildings.
Luhrmann actually opens one of his two commercials in rainy New York, showing us a chic professional woman, perched over a late-night laptop, and losing it with the stress.
Her partner is whingeing to her on the phone: "It's always work. You're not the same person I fell in love with."
A hundred years ago, a woman in such existential despair may have consulted a priest. Thirty years ago, she'd go for a shrink. And 10 years ago, she'd go to a life-skills workshop by some guru she saw on Oprah.
But this is 2008, and salvation comes instead from a little Aboriginal boy, near naked, whose mere presence turns off televisions, computers and all the electronic machines of busy-busy.
He pours sparkling red dust in her hand and whispers: "Sometimes we have to get lost to find ourselves, sometimes we have to go walkabout."
How wonderfully mystic! And just how I plan my own holidays, consulting not a travel brochure but a fistful of dirt.
Only then does Luhrmann shift the scene to Australia, with Professional Woman and Whinger plunging into what may look like the pure waters of Katherine Gorge, but is actually Nature's own baptismal font.
You see, these urban spiritualists have just been reborn. Professional Woman emerges glowing newly, and the captions proclaim: "She arrived as Ms K. Mathieson, Executive VP of Sales. She departed as Kate."
As Luhrmann, director of Moulin Rouge, explains: "The land itself, the place itself, transforms her character." Mine, too, as you can tell.
Lurhmann's Shanghai ad tells of the same awakening. This time it's a stressed, emotionally dead Chinese finance manager who gets dust dropped into his hand, leading him to dance at dusk on a dining table set on a patch of our vast Outback.
How marvellously that will play to the kind of privileged professionals who salve their monied conscience by buying Wilderness Society calendars for their en suite and carrying their French brie home in green bags.
But I'm looking at these ads as an ever-eager tourist and wondering, what would my kids be doing while I bathed in spirituality?
Where would we shop afterwards? Where would we stay? How much time and money would it take to actually get to these distant places? And what would we do the next day?
Oops. Did I just break wind in church? But you see, there's a reason why just 150 foreign tourists a day visit Katherine Gorge, many of them backpackers with skinny wallets not worth fighting over.
And there's a reason you'll find tens of thousands at places where there's plenty to see, lots to do and enough Australians around to make them feel welcome. Like reef cruises. Wildlife parks. Big cities. Stuff for the kids.
Most tourists are, after all, more pragmatic than religious, and want to fill their too-few days of vacation with fun and value, rather than ommmms and clapping sticks, with a long and dusty trek afterwards to the airport.
I'd have thought Tourism Australia knew that already, given the history of its own ad campaigns.
Paul Hogan's "shrimp on the barbie" ads, after all, remain the most famous and loved, remembered even today by many who saw them 20 years ago.
How irresistible was his Australia - of beaches, bikinis, barbecues and an Opera House on the sun-lit harbour. It was an Australia populated by charming people who said "g'day" in charming accents, and not at all like Luhrmann's - at its best without a local to be seen or endured.
It worked, of course. Tourism to Australia doubled in the five years Hogan's ads played.
But such happy populism has always had its critics in our creative class. The artist-feeding Australia Council, for instance, said the Hogan ads made it "cringe", and Tourism Australia must have grown equally sensitive because in 2004 it decided to give us more tone.
You won't remember most of the ads it shot in that $120 million "See Australia" campaign because half were so bad they were scrapped before they were even released.
One showed Aboriginal artist Barbara Weir, sitting in red dirt in faded clothes, quoting DH Lawrence in her local language and painting dots.
Another had poet Les Murray reciting lines from his work: "Shorts in that plain like are an angelic nudity. Spirituality with pockets!"
And a third had a Brett Whiteley seascape come to animated life, to the gasps of Michael Parkinson. They may have catered only to our pretentions, but the Australia Council hailed them as "sophisticated, subtle and sexy".
Yes, as travel ads they worked. Trouble was, those who saw them wanted to travel fast to any place but where they were, or were watching.
Chastened, Tourism Australia flicked the switch back to more traditional fare of kangaroos on golf courses and Bingle on the beach wondering: "Where the bloody hell are you?" - perky stuff that saw traffic to its website leap 30 per cent in a year.
But the arts lovers have waited for their chance to seize back Tourism Australia, which seems the last battlefield of the culture wars.
And now they have it. The Bingle ads were a bungle, declares new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd - "a rolled gold disaster" - overlooking the fact that any dip in tourism had more to do with our dollar having gone up a third in value, pricing us out of many budgets.
So now we have Luhrmann, selling his Church of New Age Australia. What was Tourism Australia thinking?
Well, maybe it figured it could double the impact of its tight budget by commissioning ads that tie in closely to Lurhmann's outback epic, Australia, out in cinemas next month. I guess it's banking on the film being a look-at-us smash, even though it stars Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman.
But I suspect from the launch ads that Luhrmann may have also given in to the fashionable urge to improve us locals, rather than lure in strangers.
In introducing the star of his ads, 12-year-old Brandon Walters, also in Australia, he made a boast that showed his heart of Reconciliation gold: "Our next leading man is about four foot high, (with) long, sort of gold hair, and is an Aboriginal boy."
A sweet and noble art-house conceit. But rather unlikely, to be bluntly pragmatic. Which is a lot like the vision sold by Tourism Australia's ads, really, and the hopes that rest on them.