Sunday, 13 January 2019

CONSUMING ANZAC: The History of Australia’s Most Powerful Brand by JO HAWKINS

CONSUMING ANZAC: The History of Australia’s Most Powerful Brand


University of Western Australia Publishing, 2018, 173 pages

Review by Phil Shannon


It can be hard sometimes to give a monkey’s if forced to choose between the obligatory, sombre commemoration of war in Australia and the more grubbily commercial profit-making from it, as CONSUMING ANZAC, by Dr Jo Hawkins (University of Western Australia), demonstrates to those who may feel that neither war nor consumer capitalism have all that much going for them.  

Australia’s secular worship of war is centred around Anzac Day, that most endlessly hyped day of patriotic-militarist sentiment, the day the not-long-federated country had its “martial baptism” as a ‘true nation’ when thousands of its soldiers were butchered (or, in the authorised version, ‘engaged in heroic self-sacrifice’) during the failed First World War invasion of the Gallipoli peninsula, Turkey, on April 25th, 1915. 

Australia’s capitalists were quick to see the tremendous marketing potential of Anzac Day by aligning their civilian consumer brand with the officially revered military brand of Anzac.  As early as 1916, the “commercial appeal” of the word ‘Anzac’ was being used to flog various foodstuffs, beverages, soaps, toys, all sorts of apparel, Rexona healing ointment (tested in the trenches!), watches, matches, jewellery, cafés and restaurants. 

‘Sacrilege’, declared the war-time government as it promptly passed a law against the practice of appropriating the word ‘Anzac’ for commercial purposes.  For many decades, the community guardians of the Anzac tradition, the Returned Servicemen’s League (RSL), would dob in offenders to the government for prosecution or public shaming. 

It wasn’t until an increasingly unpopular Vietnam War had begun to marginalise the conservative RSL and its precious Anzac tradition that the RSL was forced to relax its stern hold over a commerce-free Anzac Day.  The up-side for the RSL was that its shrinking coffers would be replenished by extracting a tithe on approved commercial activity.  An added bonus was that the public legitimacy of war in general could be rekindled. 

A mutually beneficial symbiosis between commerce and commemoration gathered pace from the 1990s with a range of lucrative, RSL-approved, and Government-blessed, Anzac-branded cultural commodities.  Books led the way - in 2003, for example, Australians bought 130 million books on Anzac, most of them “politically anaesthetising” tomes, “celebratory page-turners” which sentimentally acclaimed “the triumph of the human spirit” against extreme adversity.  These were essentially redemptive ‘Misery Lit’ stories which did not deepen the reader’s historical understanding of the war and its structural geo-political-economic drivers. 

Mass market tourist operators and associated merchandise peddlers were also coining it, as tens of thousands of young Australian and New Zealander backpackers annually trek to the sacred site of Gallipoli for a mystical Dawn Service, the search for nationalist epiphany accompanied by the sale of (made-in-China) tourist tat and the opportunity for the ‘war pilgrims’ to cross off yet another destination from the backpacker’s ‘To Do’ list, up there with “bull running in Pamplona or the Munich Oktoberfest”. 

Modern sporting/entertainment corporate behemoths (the Australian Football League [AFL], Rugby League and Rugby Union) are some other prominent heads of the capitalist Hydra to find war profiteering during peacetime to be richly remunerative. 

The AFL’s annual ‘Anzac Day Clash’ (Essendon v Collingwood), for example, includes an official RSL commemorative pre-match extravaganza, whilst the whole fixture is saturated with military symbolism and ritual.  The event has since expanded to involve all clubs in an AFL ‘Anzac Day Round’, further boosting income for the AFL and, for the RSL, the proceeds from the cut of the weekend’s takings. 

This is a far cry from the past, more ‘purist’, era when it was illegal to play or watch sport, or even train, on Anzac Day, and it is even more distant from the First World War itself when the largely middle class (and Protestant) Essendon was one of six clubs to sit out the war whilst working class (and Catholic) Collingwood was one of the four that kept on playing. 

Since corporate sameness has ridden roughshod over grass roots tradition and sociological diversity, however, the more socially homogenised professional football clubs of today lend a more pronounced ‘national unity’ theme to the pro-war “politics of remembrance” as enacted on the football field, playing a significant role in normalising war as a core part of Australian nationalism.

Other corporates to enrol in the RSL-licensed Anzac ranks have included biscuit-makers (Unibic produce the humble ‘Anzac Biscuit’), telecommunications companies (discounted Telstra call rates on Anzac Day), McDonalds, Crown Casino, airlines (Qantas and Virgin Blue discount flights), beer-makers (Carlton & United Breweries’ ‘Raise A Glass Appeal’ is a classic of the ‘cause marketing’ genre, as it is known in ad-land), whilst for just $2.25, you could download a mobile app for the mandatory ‘One Minute’s Silence’ which, in concept and price, is a bigger scam than bottled water. 

Not to be outdone, NewsCorp used the 2002 death of the last surviving Gallipoli veteran, Alec Campbell, to launch a sales promotion through a commemorative medallion available with the purchase of its newspapers.  This scheme was, however, potentially embarrassing because, Campbell, the last original Anzac, on his deathbed, said ‘for God’s sake don’t glorify Gallipoli – it was a terrible fiasco, a total failure and best forgotten’.  This doesn’t fit the official historical Anzac narrative at all. 

Neither does it sentimentally venerate Anzac Day, and, without the emotional propaganda pumped out by the Anzac Day industry, the militarist flame could sputter and dim and this would never do because you never know when and where Australia and its allies may need to invade next in the quest for territory, resources and markets, or to counter (in Noam Chomsky’s words) the ‘threat of a good example’ from countries seeking independence or, worse, socialism. 

For this is what ‘Anzac’ is really all about – the use of war, in all its brutal rottenness, to stake out a piece of the global consumer capitalist action.  Despite the sometimes awkward Anzac Day dance between military commemoration and commerce, the truth is that war and capitalism were made for each other.

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