[csaa-forum] Transtasman relations

Danny Butt danny at dannybutt.net
Fri Feb 11 10:09:40 CST 2005

Some pop cultural studies in the press, in NZ for a change (not nearly as
common as in the Fairfax papers in Aus, which seem to have a story like this
every week). If anyone's interested in how ad agencies come to think stuff
like this I highly recommend:

Thornton, Sarah. 2000: An academic Alice in adland: ethnography and the
commercial world. Critical Quarterly 41, 57­68

Does anyone have any better transtasman cultural generalisations :)?



Where women are real men

by Chris Barton

Whose truth is this? New Zealanders love the land. They love being in it,
doing things on it. New Zealanders go barefoot or in jandals because they
want to be as close to the land as possible. They love the outdoors so much
that when they invite you into their house they immediately take you outside
again. They like to run on the streets.

For New Zealanders the land represents everything that is pure and
authentic. It's. the essence of who we are. We love it so much that we fear
losing it which is why we get so upset about foreign ownership and Maori
claims to the foreshore.

But Australians see the land as something to be tamed. The relationship to
the land is more rugged, in the Marlboro Man tradition. The land is
something to be observed, or crossed, not something to integrate with.
Australians have a fear of the land because it's much more harsh and
hostile. In Australia it's the people who create the land, the big
continent. Australians have a psyche of populate or perish. They don't fear

Buy it or not - and being from an advertising agency they hope you do -
these are some of the results of an eight-month study by FCB New Zealand.
Chief executive Nick Baylis says it "uncovers some gnarly truths about our
culture". Gnarly truths arrived at by analysing advertisements in both
countries. "This piece of research gives us the jump on everyone else
because it uses semiotic and anthropological studies that people in New
Zealand just don't use."

Semi what? Semiotics, the study of signs, first applied to the
interpretation of popular culture in the 1950s by the French semiologist
Roland Barthes in Mythologies. The principles of semiotics - signifiers and
signifieds - had long been explored, but Barthes took it to his contemporary
France and analysed the cultural significance of everything from
professional wrestling to plastics. He died in 1980, knocked over by a
laundry van - a chance collision itself subjected to semiotic analysis.

"The basic principle is that culture is constructed," says FCB social
researcher Jacqueline Smart. "There is nothing natural or innate about it.
It's made by the people that use it."

Smart avoids academic jargon, talking instead about legends and tensions.
"The legends are the key cultural themes or stories that have constructed
our cultural identity. Given that it's constructed, it's also constantly
being reconstructed, which gives you residual, dominant and emerging codes."

Cracking the codes is what Smart does - looking at categories of ads to find
what is being said and created, the metaphors, where the viewer is, the
different icons and symbols. "You do a paradigmatic axis - if it's this, it
can't be that. But what if we did the 'notness'," she raves. The whatness?

"The great thing about semiotics is that its slows you down as a
practitioner to focus on the small detail - to break everything down and
track and iterate between everything and build it all up to create one big
picture again." 

The big picture gets filled out with ethnographic studies, observing people
and "accepting what you see rather than trying to make sense or give a
reason behind it." Smart calls it "legalised stalking".

There was also input from American anthropologists and semioticians, who
noticed how New Zealanders immediately take you outside just after inviting
you in. When the Americans asked people for images that represented New
Zealand, women brought pictures of All Blacks, sheep, tractors, the beach -
the same as the men. Where were the feminine symbols like apple pie and
quilts? The Americans said they had never been to a country where men and
women were so morphed. Smart calls it the gender-blender phenomenon.

On the one hand, New Zealand is a dominantly male culture. But there's also
a tension, "the emergence of a different status of masculinity to
accommodate the increasing status of women as they earn this respect", as
seen in the beer ad where men are wrenching off bottle tops with their
teeth. Then the woman does it with her belly-button. The men are impressed -
and she's an honorary bloke. The Americans say women's reaction in most
cultures would be never to drink that beer for fear it would make them male.

It's the Tui ad with Kiwi mates in the backyard drinking beer and "watching
sky" that addresses the gender-blender phenomenon most. When one sees a
shooting star and makes a wish, his mates morph into gorgeous blond women,
albeit still drinking, burping and crushing cans on their foreheads. So
we're in a land where blokes are blokes and even women can be blokes. Be
very afraid. 

Australians just don't get such ads. They like to keep their mates male and
keep males and females separate. So there's the Australian ad where the
bloke and his girlfriend are enjoying a lovey-dovey Tarzan-Jane moment which
is accidentally relayed to his sporting mates through his mobile. The mates
interrupt with a group Tarzan chest-thumping call. The shame.

Or the Australian Jim Beam ads where the bloke won't drink anything but the
real thing - even when he's being pummelled in the boxing ring by his ex or
the big scary career woman. Aussies love it but New Zealand audiences don't
respond so well, possibly because we don't mind women in authority.

Helen Clark wins on two fronts: popular because she's a woman with a deep
voice, showing strong leadership just like a man; and her obvious love of
the land - kayaking and climbing mountains.

Don Brash has a not-so-good relationship with terra firma - having had the
land literally thrown in his face at Waitangi. And he has an Asian wife,
possibly associating him with a culture that's more indoors and that doesn't
always "do New Zealand". But Brash is also playing to the "residual codes",
calling for a return to the way we were and tapping into the backlash
against cultural change. That may work, because the research shows Kiwis
like things to stay the same. And we don't like differences. Take the Toyota
ad that shows everyone enjoying the same things, ending with the Asian
market gardener - outdoors, loving the land - saying, "Every day I think
this is great place."

Smart says that "He loves New Zealand the same way we love New Zealand"
message is a key reason why Toyota is so popular here. We create our own
stage and want the world to recognise us. Hence the Goldstein ASB ads,
showing the Americans what a great little bank we have.

The Aussies don't have these hang-ups. They talk themselves up. New
Zealanders take the piss out of themselves before someone else does. "The
Australians take the piss out of other people and let people take piss out
of them." They use humour as a weapon, like their tomato campaign slogan
"rich and thick". Australian celebrities queued to have the words attached
to their picture. If Watties wanted to do a similar campaign here with soup,
can you imagine Paul Holmes or Charlotte Dawson on a poster? But while the
ad-speak about culture is entertaining, FCB's interest is more practical.
"It's talking to how you align your brands to a cultural ethos or a way of
life that really connects people, and obviously advertising is all about
connection." Baylis means to sell stuff. He says the research came about to
stop Australian companies treating New Zealand as another state of Australia
and running their ads here. And to show why Australian ads don't work.

The response? New Zealanders buy into the study. "It's the classic younger
sibling going, 'Yes, yes, yes that's so bloody true." And the Australians
go, 'Oh yeah, whatever. Go away'." So Aussie.

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[ Lilith] laughed bitterly. "I suppose I could think of this as fieldwork -
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