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What do people remember on ANZAC Day?

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Sixteen years ago I lost a job that I loved very dearly. I had been working at Ogilvy & Mather for nearly ten years, having landed my first industry role there as the ‘despatch boy’. I’d written letters to Managing Directors asking for meetings and finally, a very kindly John Peters gave me my first break at what was then just O&M. A ‘boy’ I was too, at only 17 years of age and I thought I was the luckiest guy on the planet. Where else could I swipe double movie passes out of the mail, (passes that were supposed to go to the Media Director) and then hit on junior account managers by showing off my opening night movie premiere tickets. Ah, the despatch boy ‘salad days’.

Nine and a half years of service, 4 mergers and one published article in Adnews later and I was faced with a choice: apologise to John Singleton for upsetting his feelings and maybe keep my job, or don’t and don’t. It was one of those seminal moments that defines your character as a younger man and it was an easy choice. I walked. In fact I marched and I marched proudly. The reason I was proud to walk all those years ago is resonating with me now as we approach the 100th anniversary of Anzac Day. Not because I have any delusions of being brave and not because I in any way thought of my departure then as being a great sacrifice. The reason I’m thinking about it as we approach the 100th anniversary is because it was the Anzac memory that was the subject of the letter that got me in hot water in the first place.

In an age where there’s now a ballot for tickets to attend the Anzac fields at Gallipoli and tours operate all year round to satisfy the interest of the many thousands of people captivated by the Anzac memory, I find myself at an impasse. On one hand it’s fantastic that so many people have rediscovered a passion for the Anzac spirit, (just look at the increase in attendance at the annual march) and on the other hand it’s a highly commercialized business, where brands clamour to align themselves to this much revered and yet difficult period of antipodean history.

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Sixteen years ago I felt so passionately about this last point that I wrote an article to Adnews about the McDonalds ‘Thank you. No, thank you’ campaign. (Even remembering that campaign gives me a bit of a shudder because of how it makes me feel about brands trying to align themselves with our national history.) The premise of the article was that we shouldn’t allow corporate interests, especially foreign ones, to leverage the events of this particularly tragic piece of our history for commercial profit.

In my youthful exuberance I may have called them ‘offal vendors’ and perhaps even the ‘evil breeders of mediocrity’, but really the point of the letter was to call out McDonalds for shamelessly using the Anzac memory to sell hamburgers. It’s something that I’d like you, dear reader, to think more deeply about today. How do we feel about selling ‘stuff’ off the back of the many thousands of brave young men who ran, crawled and clawed their way to an early death ten thousand kilometers away from the homes?

Should brands even be allowed to align with a day that the vast majority of Australians consider the most sacred day of the year?

When I reflect on this today I have to be honest and say that I really don’t think that my passion about this issue has waned in the least. In fact I think it’s crystallized into a pretty firm view: commercial brands, of any origin, should not be allowed to profit from the Anzac heritage. For 100 years it’s been a day of reflection about incredibly brave sacrifice and about how we should never forget what happened on the beaches of Gallipoli. To honour the memory of those who fought and died there, lest we forget the lessons that their deaths teach us still. How do we feel about something so tragic and in a way, so ‘beautiful’, being used to promote products or services whatever they may be?

In 2012 a brewery created a campaign that featured a young widow reflecting on how she remembers her brave husband. It ends with a call to remember ‘those who serve’. A noble sentiment? Absolutely. A clever piece of brand communication? Absolutely? Therein lies the nexus between brands and the Anzac memory. Brands can enter this space if their alignment is disguised as virtuous sentiment, but do they assume that we ignore their commercial imperatives? Do they assume that everyday Australians are easily and readily distracted by the shiny veneer of pathos? That’s the question that interests me today.

Do brands really believe that what we all hold in our hearts to be a personal connection with something greater than ourselves, is easily forgotten when an ‘entity’ shimmys up next to it and says, ‘Buy me, I like Anzac Day too.’ (It’s important to note that the brewery’s campaign raised many millions of dollars for campaign partners Legacy and that’s fantastic, I only raise the example to illustrate the ease with which brands can access the unprotected Anzac memory. The brand association does, however, still make people feel a bit queasy.)

Raising money for Legacy aside, when I see that particular accompanying TVC I do feel like taking a bath. I feel a bit like I’m voyeuristically sharing in what really should be an intimate and private memory. It also makes me feel a bit shabby for even being in the industry that seems so eager to use this as leverage, but maybe that’s just me? Probably.

But it also makes me wonder if there’s the potential for some kind of protection around what has quickly become our national day. Can we in any way unite to cordon off the Anzac memory and keep corporations at arms length from a day that should be free of consumerism and humbly spent in reflection?

I think it’s time to have this kind of discussion as we stand witness to the 100th anniversary of the ill-fated landings. The ferocity of promotion that surrounds both the day and even the event itself on the shores of Gallipoli, continues unchecked. Perhaps our own ‘battle’ can be to defend the sanctity of the memory of the boys who died so far from their parents? Perhaps it’s time to find the means by which Australians can register their discomfiture at what some see as a misappropriation of our national identity?

I wonder if Aussie Singo would stand up for the Australian Anzac heritage in the way I’m advocating. He certainly didn’t all those years ago and I don’t imagine he would now. Though it would be nice to think he’s softened as he’s grown older? I recall him saying to the media at the time of my departure, words to the effect of, ‘You’ve got to love selling to stay in this business, and if you don’t, get out.’ Well I do love ‘selling’, but unlike John’s view then, (and I suspect now as well), I just feel that some things aren’t for sale.

Ben Davis

Executive Creative Director

Image source: The Australian, Gallipoli Tours, On The Go Tours, The Conversation