Should ANZAC and the memory of war be such big business?

Has remembrance of Anzac become too commodified? Australian historian Dr Jo Hawkins spoke to Alex Braae about what commercialised commemoration of Anzac means, and whether it has gone too far. 

At Anzac Day commemorations in Auckland earlier this year, the drummers were sponsored by casino SkyCity. It was  just a small moment, but one that told a bigger story. With the resurgence of interest in the Anzac legends, brands are increasingly keen to attach themselves to it.

That there has been an upswing in interest over the last few decades isn’t in doubt. In both New Zealand and Australia, huge increases in crowd numbers at Dawn Services have been observed. Services happen all over the world too, especially in London and on the Gallipoli Peninsula itself, where the Anzac story began back in 1915. Even as those who were alive during the World Wars die off, their descendants pin on red poppies and troop to memorials in their thousands.

Companies and institutions have noticed this as well, though there isn’t one particular way these developments have manifested themselves. They range from historically focused exercises like Sir Peter Jackson’s new World War One documentary They Shall Not Grow Old being released on the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, to the charitable assertiveness of Fonterra offering free milk to RSAs, to the cynical and absurd use of the slogan “fresh in our memories” by Australian supermarket chain Woolworths to sell vegetables, to the downright weird, like Pizza Hut sending customers a ‘Lest We Forget’ email to remind people of their ANZAC Day opening hours. In each case, there’s an attempt at gaining some commercial value for the brands, either through marketing, or increased sales. It’s a symbiotic relationship too – both brands and veterans organisations often end up benefitting.

Sometimes these attempts provoke more controversy than commemoration. Just this week, Virgin Australia came under fire for a misguided attempt to ‘honour the troops,’ announcing that from now on servicemen and women would be acknowledged by pilots at the start of flights, and given priority boarding. Australian veteran and columnist Rodger Shanahan described it as “trite and embarrassing,” and Virgin subsequently pulled back somewhat.

Dr Jo Hawkins from the University of Western Australia has studied these issues extensively, both as a historian and as someone with a background in advertising. She’s just released a book called Consuming Anzac on the phenomenon, charting how the brand value of Anzac has changed, how consumers have responded to that, and why Anzac mythology makes for such a powerful and attractive brand for marketers.

Just to start us off, there’s a term you use a lot in the book – ’cause marketing’. What’s that all about? 

A lot of the modern commercial agreements are a form of cause marketing, which is a strategy that became quite big after the 90s. It’s when you get a brand, like Victoria Bitter or the AFL, and they have a deal with a veteran’s organisation, and basically donations are tied to sales. It’s an extremely impactful way to tie your brand to the Anzac legend, because it looks like charity. And it is, but it’s not philanthropy, because it’s very clearly linked with brand building. You can measure the success of these things through revenue.

So you say cause marketing is a more recent phenomenon in terms of Anzac – why is it a big thing now? 

When you think about big brands and the appeal of Anzac, the value of Anzac as a cultural commodity has changed over the last 100 years, quite dramatically. A lot of the time people would have seen no value in aligning their brand with Anzac in Australia. But around the 90s there were quite a few significant commemorative anniversaries that we share with New Zealand. Before the 90s, I could find very little evidence of an advertiser wanting to link their brand with Anzac for 50 years.

You’ve got an advertising background – does that help you come at these sort of questions from different angles to what pure historians would?

You can imagine yourself sitting around the office with a client, and a creative director, and a marketing strategist, and you can imagine the ideas coming out. I think the interesting thing about tying in with Anzac is that it isn’t just about making money and promoting the brand, there’s an element of promoting the Anzac legend, and there is an element of raising money for charity. But the interesting thing about the 21st century is that commemoration and commerce are no longer seen as mutually exclusive. And that was a big change, and I think part of my research that I found so interesting was uncovering  the mutually beneficial relationships that underpin Anzac commercialisation. Because a lot of people are benefitting, and a lot of stakeholders benefit from the promotion of the Anzac legend in a general sense, and the perpetuation of this idea.

Well, in some way the state itself benefits from it. So to what degree is this selling nationalism back to people?

Absolutely, and that’s one of the key questions I was asking. Obviously it’s always changing and morphing, it’s never stagnant. Anzac represents a range of aspirational ideas about masculinity, mateship and bravery. So the question is – who is benefitting? Who is trying to leverage this cultural commodity, and for what purpose? And who is being prevented from using this word?

I suppose a related question there – the upswing in attention to Anzac commemoration has continued while large numbers of Australian troops, and lesser numbers of New Zealand troops, have been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11. How much is this commemoration happening in service of these deployments?

Around the time of the deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan, that’s when cause marketing really started to rise. But also you can see the entire tone changes, and it becomes much more emotional, and much more tied into sacrifice, grief and trauma. You might have an assumption that advertisements need to make you feel good to work, but that’s not true. You can actually unleash negative emotions, and a consumer can still forge a connection with your brand, that will help you differentiate your product. An example of this which reflects this new era was the Victoria Bitter “Raise a Glass” campaign that started in 2009. There was a whole series of TV ads, including one with a war widow whose husband had been killed in Afghanistan. There’s an empty chair and a VB for him, and she’s drinking a VB in his memory. The advertisement portrays drinking beer, and VB specifically, as an act of commemoration. That’s a very modern interpretation. Its an expression of grief and mourning, but they’re also selling beer at the same time.

Before the 2000s, advertisers were more likely to create ads that evoked nostalgia about Australia wartime history, smiling diggers playing two-up for example. You don’t tend to see them any more once New Zealand and Australian troops are deployed for real. It starts to become grounded with a contemporary experience, and that’s part of the genius of Anzac as a brand – it’s so malleable.

And presumably the capturing of such extreme emotional intensity means it lends itself quite well to sports tie-ins as well?

Sport and war have always had a metaphorical link – George Orwell talked of sport as war without the shooting. The AFL has probably been the most successful organisation to evoke Anzac, and that has been astonishing. The AFL Anzac Day fixtures are some of the biggest games of the year, and they make millions and millions of dollars from that tie-in.

A couple of years ago the AFL sought to extend that further by playing Anzac fixtures in New Zealand as well.

Yes, it became part of a strategy  of international expansion and promotion of the game. They have also expanded the fixtures back in Australia. In 2015 they had an entire weekend of Anzac fixtures. Everyone had seen how the traditional match between Melbourne clubs Collingwood and Essendon had been so successful. How it drives ticket sales and advertising revenue. And other teams wanted a piece of that as well.

Okay, so the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day is coming up, and part of your book talks about the publishing industry. A cynic might ask if you’re cashing in on this as well?

Well, the irony is not lost on myself and my publisher. The book is inescapably part of the Anzac industry it seeks to critique. For example, we decided to publish the book as the centenary drew to a close as I was keen to contribute to debate and discussion during this time. A book’s cover is a powerful marketing tool in itself, and mine has been designed to in a way that is a little provocative but also looks like it would fit into a shelf of military histories. At the same time consumer culture doesn’t necessarily trivialise or sanitise war, or the memory of the Anzacs, and I make that point in the book in a chapter I wrote about the Anzac publishing industry. In a consumer culture, one of the main ways that ideas ideas are spread is through the marketplace.

Well in terms of that memory, the Anzac legacy has arguably become quite un-criticisable. Do you feel some people might look at a book like yours and say it’s perhaps iconoclastic, or perhaps outright disrespectful?

I think time will tell. I’m really interested to the feedback and debate on it. But my gut feel is that Australians and New Zealanders of all political inclinations are united in a revulsion of really stark commodification of this sort of military history. So if you really believe in the Anzac legend and think it should be promoted to as many people as possible, you might feel that commercial tie-ins can sully the sacred nature of the legend, and you often see critique around that. That was the fear that has been ongoing since 1915 – that consumer culture is profane, and this legend is sacred. But at the same time, if you feel uncomfortable about the militarisation of history by the promotion of this myth, you’re also often against the rampant commercialisation, because you feel like it’s promoting and perpetuating this mythos even further.

The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.

Sign up now

The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.