The Anzac Myth — Australia’s most powerful brand

April 12, 2019

Consuming Anzac: The History of Australia’s Most Powerful Brand
Jo Hawkins
University of Western Australia Publishing, 2018
173 pages

It can be hard to give a monkey’s if forced to choose between the obligatory, sombre commemoration of war and the grubby commercial profit-making from it. Consuming Anzac, by University of Western Australia academic Dr Jo Hawkins, shows that this is the unsavoury choice on offer to those who feel that neither war nor consumer capitalism have all that much going for them.

Australia’s secular worship of war is centred on Anzac Day, that endlessly hyped day of patriotic-militarist sentiment. It was 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 World War I invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey, on April 25, 1915.

Australia’s capitalists were quick to see the tremendous marketing potential of Anzac Day by aligning their 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 wartime 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” that sentimentally acclaimed “the triumph of the human spirit” against extreme adversity.

These were essentially redemptive “Misery Lit” stories that 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 earning coin 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 is 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 AFL, rugby league and rugby union) are some of the prominent heads of the capitalist Hydra that find war profiteering during peacetime to be richly remunerative.

The AFL’s annual “Anzac Day Clash” between Essendon and Collingwood includes an official RSL commemorative pre-match extravaganza, while 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, a cut from 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. It is even more distant from World War I itself, when the largely middle class (and Protestant) Essendon was one of six clubs to not play football during the war. The working class (and largely Catholic) Collingwood, however, was one of the four that kept on playing.

Since corporate sameness has ridden roughshod over grassroots 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. This has played 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 produces the humble “Anzac Biscuit”), telecommunications companies (discounted Telstra call rates on Anzac Day), McDonald’s, Crown Casino, airlines (Qantas and Virgin Blue discount flights), and beer-makers (Carlton & United Breweries’ “Raise A Glass Appeal” is a classic of the “cause marketing” genre, as it is known in ad-land).

Meanwhile, 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, Rupert Murdoch’s 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, said on his deathbed: “For God’s sake don’t glorify Gallipoli — it was a terrible fiasco, a total failure and best forgotten.”

This doesn’t exactly fit the official historical Anzac narrative.

Neither does it sentimentally venerate Anzac Day. Without the emotional propaganda pumped out by the Anzac Day industry, the militarist flame could sputter and dim. 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.

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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