Tuesday, 31 May 2011


Forget about who's starring in the Carbon Tax ad. Is it any good as an effective piece of advertising?

Thus far, all the attention has focused on the appropriateness of having a multi-millionairess and Hollywood superstar appearing on behalf of the average Aussie. Both Michael Caton and Cate Blanchett have hurried into the fray to inform us that they, too, have a right to speak on behalf of the issue. Of course, they do. But it’s irrelevant. And doesn't answer the question. Is the ad any good?

In terms of generating awareness, the ad has been a blockbuster. There can hardly be a person in Australia who has not seen or heard of the ad by now. Job well done.

But awareness is a double-edged sword, and in this instance the impact of having our most famous actress appearing, and then being criticized for appearing, has managed to "vampire" the message itself. The discussion is about Cate, not carbon. From an advertising point of view, this becomes a problem.

Having gained massive awareness, does the ad persuade? From my point of view, this is where it fails dramatically. It is, quite simply, a dud ad.

Those who believe in the benefits of a Carbon Tax are already persuaded, as we saw Monday night on Q&A. Although they get a warm inner glow from seeing Cate and Michael espousing the cause, they are irrelevant to the success of the ad. That can only be judged by its impact on the core demographic.

Opinion polls show overwhelmingly that the majority of average voters over 50 are opposed to the tax by a factor of 2 to 1. Michael Caton may be "saying yes" to a Carbon Tax, but the odds are that his alter ego Darryl Kerrigan - still living under a flightpath in the suburbs and loving nothing more than a two stroke engine on full throttle - would be “saying no” and telling Greg and Julia very firmly where they can stick it.  

The job of the ad is to persuade these naysayers or waverers to support the Carbon Tax. Hence, the rather unoriginal "Say Yes" slogan. The biggest danger when trying to persuade someone of the merits of your cause is to lose your focus. Being single-minded, as every advertising person knows, is by far the most effective way of being persuasive. The Government has struggled with the messaging of this tax from day one, wavering between trying to sell it as a "good thing for our planet" to the base self-interest of "a million people will be better off." This ad - not a government ad, but it may as well be - falls into the same trap. It wants to be all things to all people, but in doing so, completely undermines itself.

The various issues are raised and dismissed in cursory fashion, as if to dwell on any of them isn't worth the effort. "Say yes to new money for clean energy that never runs out," has to be one of the oddest, most dishonest and grammatically torturous lines to ever appear in an ad, political or otherwise. Dissecting it sheds no light. New money? What does that mean? If it means that some of the Carbon Tax will be used to fund research into renewables, then fine - but how much? What percentage? Is it the money or the clean energy that never runs out? And what clean energy are they referring to? The only one that can replace carbon sufficiently to meet our needs and will "never run out" is nuclear energy. Is that what they mean? Of course not. But to pretend that windmills etc can do the job is to grossly mislead. These are weasel words and it does no credit to the ad.

By all means have Cate and Michael fronting the cause, but do the consumer the courtesy of not treating us like idiots. The ad promises a magical tax that will create jobs (no mention of the ones that will be lost), adequately compensate all those less well off (no mention of 'changing behaviour') clean up pollution and magically fund new forms of energy. Sounds like a fairy tale.

Which leads us to the biggest negative about the ad - even worse than the clunky syntax – which is the ghastly visual approach, reminiscent of a Wiggles promo. Or worse, a Ronald McDonald Happy Meal ad. Presumably the creatives got carried away by the fact that two of our best actors had agreed to appear in their ad, and couldn't get theatrical imagery out of their heads. This is the sort of visual approach you would expect from two juniors who had just come fresh out of advertising school. It trivializes the message, and more importantly, plays into the hands of climate sceptics by presenting the whole issue as a facade. A childish game of charades, where nothing is real. The set piece topics (compensation, cleaning up pollution, funding research) are made to feel as fake and phony as the cardboard cut outs themselves. For an issue as fundamental to the economy and future of our society, this is beyond banal. It is excruciating.  

The end scene, with a radiant Cate pulling a rope to reveal a sunny world of blue skies and windmills is both patronizing and deceptive. Advertising that deceives rarely works effectively in the long run, as people become more familiar with the issues and resent that they were being treated as mugs. Windmills have no hope of replacing base-load energy, and are in fact both here and in the UK the subject of much unhappiness and controversy in those communities where they are sited. As for solar energy, just look at what's going on in NSW. Not much happiness there either. A cardboard backdrop of a glowing nuclear power plant would be more honest, but somehow I can't see it making the cut.

The summation of the ad encapsulates the problem with the entire proposition. There isn't one. Cate is a great actress, but great actors need great material in order to shine. The trite offering we get is that finally we can all "do something about Climate Change" if only we "say yes." And that of course is the problem with the "sell". It wouldn't pull the skin off a rice pudding, as one of Sydney's best creative directors used to say. It's all about doing "something" as opposed to doing "nothing." And that’s pretty much it.

Whether that is a powerful enough persuader, only time will tell. From an advertising perspective, it's pretty thin gruel.

Copyright Rowan Dean 2011

Sunday, 22 May 2011



I'm thinking of going into the people smuggling business. After all, times are tough, and we've all got to earn a crust. I used to think the ad game was an easy way to make a quick buck. However, this boat people caper just gets more and more tempting by the day.

The easiest way to sell something to somebody is when somebody else does it for you. Thanks to Julia and Chris’s 1-for-5 Refugee Bonanza – now available in all good South East Asian nations – business will soon be booming.
All I’ve got to do is set up a rickety stall in some far-flung Middle East market town, and knock out a few brochures. That’s pretty much it for overheads – other than, of course, purchasing a vaguely sea-worthy vessel for the journey. Here’s how my all-important sales pitch goes: “Want a new life? In an awesome country? Well, have I got a deal for you: Australia! Full of sun, surf and scantily clad girls (except your sister, who can wear her burqa to go swimming if you want her to.) And the best bit? You can pretty much waltz straight on in.”
To which the wary customer, nervously fingering his hard-earned greenbacks tucked into the lining of his goat-skin satchel, will raise a suspicious eyebrow. “Australia? I’ve heard horror stories about that place. I don’t want to sit in some detention centre in the desert for years on end. Not happening, dude.”
“Those days are long gone,” I’ll say, with a reassuring smile. “We got rid of that horrible little man with the bushy eyebrows. Besides which, there’s a new government incentive scheme. A new guarantee! I’ll show you. Straight from the Prime Minister’s mouth, no less!”
“The Prime Minister is a woman?” the startled refugee will exclaim, as Julia pops up on my iPad. I wink. “I told you this place was a soft touch.”
And then I’ll let Julia deliver the sucker punch and close the deal, with the clip of her announcing her “tough” new policy: “If someone seeks to come to Australia, then they are at risk of being sent to Malaysia and going to the back of a very long queue.”
My potential client will look at me in disbelief. And then burst out laughing. “It’s that easy?” he’ll say, pulling out his roll of bank notes. And I will nod. “It’s that easy.”
As anyone who has ever done business in South East Asia knows, telling someone they are going "to the back of a very long queue" is about as menacing as telling them "a limo will pick you up at 7 and take you straight to your front row seats." The rules are very different once you leave the air-conditioned comfort of Kingsford Smith and touch down in the sticky, humid world of our nearest neighbours.
I remember my first job in KL. We’d just left the airport when we were pulled over by an irate policeman. “What’s he want?” I said, puzzled. My driver sighed irritably as he fumbled in the glovebox for a wad of crumpled notes. “Just the usual. Baksheesh.”
Ostensibly a form of charity-giving, ‘baksheesh’ is anything from small tips to large, outright bribes, without which South East Asian business and politics would grind to a halt. According to a recently published survey of expat businessmen, nearly 50% believe Malaysian corruption is a "significant" problem.
Here’s how Julia’s “Malaysian Solution” looks to the people who will be implementing it. No, I don’t mean the government bureaucrats (although they must still be shaking their heads in bewilderment at our naivety) but to those who run the refugee camps.
“The Australians pay me money to take 10 boat people. Cool. And in return I get to offer 50 people in my camp the opportunity to make a charitable donation to me so that they can go to Australia. Cool. And then as soon as the 10 people from Australia arrive I will give them the opportunity to make a charitable donation to me so that they can be part of the next 50 who will go straight to Australia. Cool.”
That’s assuming, of course, that the Australian boat people sent to Thailand or Malaysia actually go into detention. It’s just as likely they’ll hop off the plane and hightail it straight down to the nearest port, where, luckily, I’ll have another boat waiting. I’ll offer a 20% discount, naturally, because repeat customers are the lifeblood of any new business. I may even offer frequent sailing points.
No wonder the Thais and Malaysians jumped at the offer. It’s a win-win-win situation. Soon, there won't be a government in the region that hasn’t grabbed our blank cheque book with eager hands. And wisely or unwisely, Australia’s refugee intake will go through the roof as every tinpot Asian country seizes this golden opportunity to offload onto us their most troublesome and problematic illegal immigrants, including – you watch! – some of the very same ones we send to them.
Julia Gillard is desperate to do the decent thing on this issue. In fact, you can tell by the whispery, earnest way she speaks and her slightly flushed pink cheeks that for once she genuinely believes in what she’s selling. Unfortunately, after a career spent in the confines of Canberra, shuffling agenda items and bureaucratic decrees from one folder to another, Julia is, quite simply, far too nice and trusting. Corruption and South East Asia go hand in hand. To the very top. If you don’t believe me, just google ‘Anwar Ibrahim’ and ‘sodomy.’
Neither Malaysia nor Thailand are signatories to the UN Convention on Human Rights. Both their track records on treatment of illegal immigrants are woeful, with Thailand pushing unwanted Muslims back out to sea. Doing his best to prove he’s even more gullible than Julia, Chris Bowen came out with this gem:
 “We've talked these issues through (and) Malaysia's given that very firm commitment about dignity and humanity for asylum seekers.” Really? Human Rights Watch thinks differently:
 “Malaysia cannot present itself as a responsible member of the international community while continuing to refuse to ratify core UN treaties, including… the Convention Against Torture. The government (needs to) upgrade the appalling conditions in immigration detention centers.”
 So are we trying to discourage asylum seekers by threatening them with the vile conditions awaiting them in Malaysian and Thai refugee camps? No, although that might actually work. Instead, we are lying to ourselves that Asian refugee camps are perfectly acceptable places to traffic people to at the tax payer’s expense, whilst officially handing control of our borders to foreign countries rife with corruption. And then kidding ourselves that this ill-considered policy will act as a deterrent.
My new career is looking very rosy indeed.



Finally, the truth. Why does it take so many advertisers so long to realize that the best advertising is the truth? It doesn’t have to be the whole truth, nor indeed does it have to be nothing but the truth. You can embellish it, you can puff it up, you can even massage it (to within reason). But advertising is always going to be more powerful and persuasive when it has as its key selling point the truth. And equally, it is nearly always doomed to fail when it assumes that the consumer is stupid, and tries to bamboozle them with fibs and outright lies.

I hate smoking. I loathe the smell of it, and I find hitherto untapped reservoirs of homicidal rage welling up within me when somebody lights up in what I deem to be “my personal space” ie anywhere up to about a hundred metres away. It goes without saying that I am a “reformed” smoker. And it also goes without saying that I am utterly dismissive of those pathetic individuals who claim it is too hard to give up. All of which I mention only to point out that I am not inclined by nature to feel any sympathy whatsoever for the supposed plight of Big Tobacco as our government rightly seeks different ways to dissuade people from taking up or engaging in this vile habit.

I should also point out that I used to write cigarette ads. Some of my best friends still do, and good luck to them. They do it because they are professionals and because the product itself is legal, can be legally traded, and they work strictly within established government and industry guidelines.

But for the last few weeks I have rolled my eyes heavenward and muttered expletives under my breath every time I have heard the advertising campaign bemoaning the imminent Plain Pack legislation. First of all there was a bizarre kerfuffle over the colour “olive” – whether the new packs would be olive-brown or olive-green, and how this would affect olive growers. (Answer: it won’t.) Then things took a decidedly menacing turn for the worse, as the advertisers went down the fateful path of hyperbole and scare tactics. In a deep, doom-laden voice worthy of a horror movie trailer, a spate of radio ads sought to conjure up an apocalyptic vision of life on earth without branded cigarette packs. To a sinister musical soundtrack, we were warned that a plague of tobacco crazed drug dealers and cigarette smugglers would snatch our kiddies off the streets and prostitute them to violent Asian triads and mafia gangs that would spring up behind the counter of every local corner store or newsagent. Or something like that. The campaign was sponsored by a body called the Small Shopkeepers Association or some such spurious name, but it clearly had the yellowish fingerprints of the tobacco companies all over it. I didn’t really pay close attention because the moment I hear the tobacco retail industry warning about a “threat to our children” my inner hypocrisy metre starts flashing bright red and all receptive systems to my brain automatically shut down.

Things only got worse when David Crow, the CEO of British American Tobacco, got up at a media conference and informed the world that he was concerned that the plain pack legislation would lead to more people smoking. Huh? And, um, therefore you’re against it, Dave? The logic was tortuous, hypocritical, unbelievable and his confession (“I would tell my kids not to smoke because it says on the pack that its dangerous”) almost as nauseating as a whiff of Benson and Hedges on a clear Sydney morning.

David also trotted out the Ciggie Smuggler scare story: “This basically gives the smugglers a blueprint,” he said. “It says, look it's like a secret plan; dudes this is how it goes.” Perhaps he was hoping the more gullible consumer might confuse Cigarette Smugglers with People Smugglers, or at least assume they all came in on the same boat together.

So it was with some trepidation that I opened my Sydney Morning Herald this morning to see the new ad campaign from Mr Crow and his advertising agency, G2 - a subsidiary of Grey Australia.  (Interestingly, nobody at G2 was prepared to comment on the campaign when I phoned them, and in fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find any mention on their website or anywhere else that British American Tobacco is actually one of their clients. Most mysterious!)

As I flicked through the SMH pages I assumed I would see a continuation of the Cigarette Smugglers idea, which the creatives clearly felt had some resonance. Would it be a man with an eyepatch and a wooden leg sneaking the ciggies ashore onto a moonlit beach? Or would it be a dirty old man outside a kindergarten holding open his raincoat to entice our unsuspecting kiddies with a selection of counterfeit fag packs?

But no. I couldn’t believe my eyes. “What company would stand for this?” asked the headline, with a picture of a blank olive green (or was it olive brown?) fizzy drink can with the unbranded word Cola on it.  The legislation will “destroy brands that are worth millions if not billions of dollars” the ad informed us. And “no company would stand for having its brands taken away.”

Too bloody right. The truth, finally. This legislation will see the potential destruction of brands that have been legally built up over many years. Quite simply, this puts the spotlight squarely where it should be. This is a debate about the freedom of the marketplace, and the boundaries of government restrictions to legal trade. The government, in my opinion, has no right whatsoever to actively seek the destruction of brands that are legally traded in the marketplace.  Yes, it has every right to persuade people to choose not to smoke. And it has a duty to publicise the health risks of smoking, if for no other reason that relieving the pressure on the public purse of the exorbitant costs of treatment. It also has a duty to protect children, as it does with pornography, violent entertainment and other dangerous activities.

By all means, make smoking illegal. You’ll get no complaints from me. But if the government is not prepared to go down that path, then it has no right to wantonly destroy brands that abide by the law. And the companies and shareholders of those brands have every right to fight for their survival. For once, my sympathy lies entirely with the tobacco companies.

It’s amazing how powerful truth in advertising can be.

Thursday, 19 May 2011




OK. I'm going to go out on a limb here. Not just any old limb, either, but the highest limb I can find. On the most sacred tree in town. And I'm taking my shiny new hacksaw with me. Want to watch me fall? Stick around now. I'm going to think the unthinkable. I'm going to  - I can’t believe I'm really doing this! - I'm going to criticize a National Treasure. Right in front of your eyes. Wow! It's high up here and the view is awesome. I ready my blade, and I start sawing. Here we go then: the new Chis Lilley show (zzz zzz zzz go the teeth of my saw slicing into the flesh of the branch) called Angry Boys (zzz zzzzz zzzz - I can feel the bough starting to give way under my weight already) which screened for the second time last night on the ABC (zzzzz zzzzz oh shit - here I go!) well, sorry folks, but it simply isn't funny.

SNAP! There! I've said it. Somebody had to. I know it's not the politically correct thing to do. And I know there's a legion of crazed fans just waiting with baseball bats raised high over their heads to club me to a pulp for even daring to suggest it, but I can't help myself. Angry Boys just isn't funny. Not even remotely.

Partly, I suppose, it was the heightened expectations, which, let's face it, could never hope to be met. Nothing will ever compare with the unique and exquisite humour of Summer Heights High. The insights, the characterization, the razor sharp observations, the awesome performances, and the wonderful - almost magical - world Chris created. As the camera swooped down into the schoolyard you felt yourself happily being drawn into the lives of a cast of characters who were simultaneously scarily familiar and bizarrely alien. Achingly funny, you could return there time and time again without ever tiring of the place or the people. Or the jokes. They were just too damn good!

I'm not sure I'll be hurrying back to the Boys Juvenile Detention Centre. It just depressed me. The character Gran is basically Mr G with a gender re-assignment transposed into a new, and desperately unappealing environment. Unusually, Chris barely seems to bother trying to disguise the similarities in the two characters. Gay, racially insensitive, fond of theatre, etc. Even the same intonations and expressions started to creep in. The only obvious difference is that Mr G was funny. Gran isn't.

And please, spare me the twins and their tedious middle-finger-permanently-raised attempts to entertain. They weren't particularly good in We Can Be Heroes, and I can't help thinking there's a sniff of desperation about trotting them out again. Whereas Jonah and J'amie were equally obnoxious, arrogant, stupid and tragic, what made them so utterly compelling and irresistible was their wonderful naivety and self-belief. Nathan and Daniel, in contrast, offer no redeeming characteristics whatsoever. They are, quite simply, too awful to watch. Can someone please enlighten me as to what part of watching a bunch of bogans do burn-outs in a suped-up Commodore is funny? You'll love Parramatta Road on a Friday night then.

But the second episode sank even further than the first. Half of it was devoted to an Eminem meets Ali G meets Snoop Dog character. Ten years too late. And not even remotely funny. Worse, it was actually boring.

Masturbating dogs, anyone? Defecating on cars? Big black balls? Put your dick on my shoulder? Poo on you? If you were wise enough not to waste your time watching last night, that’s what you missed out on.

I must admit to having had an inkling that Angry Boys might fail to live up to its two predecessors. There was the trailer on the ABC over the last few weeks. None of the gags seemed particularly special, but I told myself this was a deliberate strategy to save the best for the show itself. Apparently not. Then came Ruth Ritchie's weird review just before the show premiered. Alarm bells tinkled faintly in the distance, even though I chose not to listen to them. Refusing to either praise or criticize the show, Ruth (one of our best TV reviewers) appeared to be performing some strange high wire act of her own making, dreading to put a foot wrong in her appraisal of the show. It was a cop out, demanding that the audience judge for themselves.

Anyway, I'm in free fall now and the ground is rushing up towards me. On Twitter on the opening night, #angryboys was briefly the most discussed subject in the world. Check out the tweets again this morning and you'll find the plenty of fans worshipping at the altar, loving every second of it, in praise of the maestro. Yes, if water coolers still existed the consensus would be clear. Angry Boys was hilarious. And awesome. Pure genius, even.

So Chris and the ABC can relax. They're safe. And who knows? Maybe it's a slow burn and it'll get better and better. And by the end of the ten part series it'll be an absolute classic and I'll be desperately embarrassed that I ever dared think let alone commit to paper these four shameful words: Angry Boys isn't funny.
But somehow I doubt it. After all, that's what limbs are there for. To go out on.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011



“We’re here for regional Australia, “ said Tony Windsor petulantly, “I won’t go too much further on that.” And so, with an irritable frown, and to sustained loud applause, the Independent member for New England decided he wasn’t going to waste his breath – or his precious airtime - discussing “that”.

“That” of course being the killing and bringing to justice of a man held responsible for the death of over thirty thousand Pakistanis, and the inspiration for the mass-murders of 9/11, London 7/7, Madrid, Nairobi, Tanzania and countless other atrocities.

Bin Laden’s real crime? Threatening to stand between Tony Windsor and an hour of unctuous, self-congratulatory, pompous bragging to an adoring regional studio audience. Nothing it seemed, not even a crucial victory in a war that has blighted the world for the last decade and will almost certainly dominate the next, was more important to Tony than talking about, um, himself. Gleefully explaining the power he now wields he proudly boasted that he was going to… well, we never did find out exactly what he was going to do with all that power other than chair a committee of really nice and well-meaning fellow rural MPs. (Whatever they do, he helpfully informed us, will be a “win-win” situation for all concerned. Whew, that’s alright then!)

Thank you, Osama, for yet again allowing us to witness the fairy floss morality of the left in Australian society in all its childish, self-indulgent, gullible and immature glory.

It’s unfair, of course, to judge Australians (rural or otherwise) on the make-up of the Q&A audience. But there is something seriously amiss when such an audience gives us the following reactions:

To Simon Labor’s Crean: “This is an important development and a welcome one, and in the circumstances, the only way that someone like Osama bin Laden could have been brought to justice.”

Deathly silence.

To Liberal Sophie Mirabella : “This is a victory for every democratic nation that has been fighting this insidious war on terror… and an important time to pay tribute to our serving men and women.” 

Stony silence again.

Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t expect to see Australians swinging from the studio rafters yelling “Obama! Obama! Obama! Oi! Oi! Oi!” into the wee hours of the morning. But the death of the symbolic figurehead of one of the world’s deadliest cults – an organization dedicated to the sadistic destruction of any human being who does not adhere to its horrific nihilistic doctrine – is a legitimate cause for appropriate celebration. By us all.

Or so I thought. But this particular crowd of earnest Australians – and not only them, I soon learned - were craving an altogether different emotion; one which was articulated with lump-in-the-throat sincerity by the Rural Woman of the Year, Alana Johnson: “The images from Ground Zero of people actually thinking this is a victory is very disturbing… and is a sad commentary on our humanity.”

Wild applause! Aha! I finally understood. We’re the baddies. In a bizarre echo of the most commonly expressed emotion of September 12th 2001, what many left-leaning Australians immediately seized upon this week was the opportunity to yet again don the hairshirt. Nothing soothes the souls of certain people more than the blissful reassurance that it is us and our terrible ways that are to blame for all the evils of the modern world. When the twin towers fell, the phrase I most commonly remember being assailed with was: “Why do they hate us? It must be our fault! Look what we’ve done!”

Retreating to the sanctity of my social media network, I found my worst fears confirmed. Facebook and Twitter were alive with it. Barely a word of empathy for the victims of the terrorist mastermind, but rather an avalanche of self-flagellation and self-hatred. Absolutely disgusted by the US response,” summed it up best. And “the global celebration of Osama bin Laden’s death makes me sad.” Similarly, one of the Q&A panelists weirdly opined that she “wouldn’t like anybody to lose anybody” and somehow managed to draw a parallel between bin Laden’s demise and the death of her own father. Really?

And then of course, the emotional bandwagon found its turbo-charged carriage. In quick succession, I received the following quotation, and variations of it, from half a dozen different friends. Within the hour, thousands if not millions around the world were wallowing in the warm bath of its emotional embrace:

‘Thanks Doug for reminding us of these timely words... “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy - Martin Luther King, Jr.”

Timely? Maybe a little too timely, because, as Doug and other eager tweeters were soon forced to acknowledge, the quote – and its exhortation to not rejoice - was a fake. Totally made up. That’s the internet for you. Who knows what’s real anymore? A fact that troubled many, who automatically assumed that whatever the US was telling us must, by definition, be a lie.
“Do you believe he's REALLY dead??????? No proof! … they have come to an 'arrangement' with him! But...they threw him in the SEA!!!!!!!!!!!!!! lol yeah right!”
Which translated means it’s all a hoax. Or even better, as another one of the Q&A panelists insisted, with a nod to Tony; the death of bin Laden was “not relevant.” In fact, to paraphrase this enlightened individual, terrorism is all in our minds; so if we stop worrying about it, then it will simply disappear. I’ll try and bear that in mind next time I visit Bali. Or London. Or Madrid.

“The world belongs to those who turn up,” were Tony Windsor’s final words of wisdom, in which he encouraged rural Australians to take control of their lives by voting for Independents like, um, himself. Osama bin Laden turned up. And he changed the world for the worse. I, for one, am jumping up and down that he’s dead.

Copyright Rowan Dean 2011

Friday, 6 May 2011



It’s easy to bag Earth Hour. I’ve been doing it for four years. Lets face it, as far as utterly ineffectual token gestures designed to massage the consciences of touchy-feely city-dwelling greenies goes, this one is right up there at the top of the list. I attended my first (and only) Earth Hour bash back in 2007. It was a swanky, or “schmancy” as McDonalds would say, affair atop Customs House overlooking Circular Quay. Breakfast canap├ęs. A glass of champagne. They were all there; Morris Iemma, Barry O’Farrell, a handful of journos and a couple of pop stars.  I’m sure I glimpsed Tom Keneally engrossed in conversation with Bryan Brown, so I knew it must be a Significant Event. But I was nonetheless baffled. “This is a joke,” I sniggered to my advertising companion. “Switch your lights out for an hour? And save the planet? Give me a break.”

Earth Hour started out as a self-promoting publicity stunt, of course. Most people don’t associate Earth Hour with the World Wildlife Fund (why should they? Shouldn’t the WWF be out saving polar bears from dying in German zoos rather than bothering about electricity consumption?) but it was Greg Bourne, head of the Australian WWF, who appears to have dreamt the whole thing up. But like any great success story, it has many fathers. Fairfax, Leo Burnett’s and others were quick to recognize the potential of the idea. In fact, Earth Hour’s popularity grew out of a period when many in the media and advertising were beginning to feel deeply uncomfortable – in the wake of Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth”- about the unrelenting role their industries play in advocating useless excessive consumption of all manner of goods. Thus, a cause that could harness the power of advertising and the media to promote a green, anti-emissions message was a wonderful vehicle to help salve their troubled consciences. Earth Hour went on to win huge advertising accolades around the world, culminating in a “Titanium” award at the most prestigious event of them all; the Cannes Advertising Festival, where the advertising agency responsible for promoting Greg’s stunt as well as numerous fellow-travellers all walked away literally festooned in creative “gongs”. In fact, over the last few years, just about the quickest way to notch up some creative kudos for yourself was to hop onto the Earth Hour bandwagon.

But this only prompted the cynics – such as myself – to point out that successful advertising is supposed to sell something. And what on earth was the planet in the shape of a 60 selling us? The answer – indeed the justification for the whole show – always struck many of us as being a tad spurious. “Drawing attention” to the cause, and “raising awareness” of the drastic “need to take action”, were the common phrases used to skirt around the slightly embarrassing fact that even after all the hoopla nobody could point to any genuinely worthwhile achievements, beyond, of course, “awareness.” Emissions saved? Er, probably not. Electricity consumption plummets? Um, not significantly. Agreement at Copenhagen? Oops, lets not go there. In fact, so unimpressive were the first couple of Earth Hours that in the second year the Sydney Morning Herald apparently had to fake up the “before” and “after” shots of all the lights going out around Sydney Harbour, because the difference between the two shots without retouching was barely noticeable – an ironic foretaste of the University of East Anglia’s fake research results scandal that erupted later that year.

As the Earth Hour bandwagon nonetheless gathered steam, so too did the indignation and fury of her detractors. Denounced as a “return to the dark ages”. “anti-humanist” and so on, there were plenty of experts quick to point out the insanity of  demonizing electricity; the most important and life-saving invention our species has thus far been responsible for. A world without light and power, which logically appears to be the end-game Greg must have in mind, is clearly not an attractive option for those who enjoy partaking of life’s little luxuries –such as feeding ourselves to stay alive and providing a shelter for our offspring.

But interestingly, it is here that the (possibly unintentional) message of Earth Hour is worth dwelling upon. Because what Earth Hour does superbly highlight is that if the theory of anthropogenic warming is true, then there is only one way to genuinely mitigate against or prevent it occurring. By switching everything off. Permanently. Competing statistics are continually bandied around and argued over, but the gist of them is clear enough. In order to make any significant impact on reducing greenhouse gases, the reduction in coal-based power generation has to be on a scale that is, quite literally, unimaginable. We have to switch everything off. Not just the lights. But everything. Off.

Windmills, solar and the other renewables – even including hydro – will only ever provide a piddling amount of the power we currently consume. That’s the really inconvenient truth. Even if we give the planet the benefit of the doubt, as we are constantly being reminded to do, and assume giant leaps forward in renewable resources and technology, Mother Nature simply cannot do the job of providing we humans with the energy we desire without coal.

Or uranium. But lets not go there, either.

So the only real choice we have, as Earth Hour quite rightly points out, is abstinence. We have to learn to do without. Each and every one of us. Each and every day. For as long as it takes.

The good news is, it’s not as if we don’t know how to. During World War II people famously and ingeniously coped without all sorts of things, from sugar to stockings. More recently, Sydney-siders very successfully managed to curtail their water usage for several years by making huge sacrifices on a daily basis. Sure; gardens died and cars and pavements looked filthy, but we got used to it. So let’s do it again, only this time with our personal energy consumption.

Try it. Only drive to the shops or work once a week at the most. Walk or cycle the other days. Breakfast, lunch and dinner? Raw, five days a week. You can cook on the weekend if you must. Eating out, or take-aways? Again, cut down by at least 80% please. Immediately. And if you think it’s hard getting the kids to stop watching the telly, playing Xbox, or spending so long online now – don’t worry.  Get rid of the lot of them.  In terms of useless wastage, anything on a flat screen is the equivalent of those pesky sprinklers that kids used to jump around in. They’re for the dustbin.

The Government would have us believe that there is a magic pudding solution available through a carbon tax coupled with targeted tax cuts that allows us to merrily carry on with our current high-energy lifestyle whilst someone else magically makes the emissions disappear. Forget it. The only way to tackle Climate Change, if you feel so inclined, is to give up all the stuff you love. The lot. Or at least the vast majority of it. Now.

That’s the real message of Earth Hour. 

copyright Rowan Dean 2011

Wednesday, 4 May 2011



There’s a formula to writing good comedy. Jokes don’t just happen out of thin air. They have to be carefully constructed, with elaborate preparation. John Cleese had it down pat. A German guest coming to the hotel?  Get Basil goose-stepping around the place with one arm in the air and two fingers under his nose as he struggles in vain not to “mention the war.” A visit by the health inspector? Make sure you’ve gone to the trouble of setting up the missing rodent.  In other words, take what is commonplace to everyday people, and then subtly structure a chain of events so that your lead character is forced to behave in ways that defy all logic and common sense. Throw in a couple of silly sight gags and oddball cameos and you’re away. Guaranteed laughs.

Julia Gillard is shaping up to be one of our finest comedy writers.

How perfect was the ironic humour she provided us with the other night on the telly? I have to admire the skill with which she contrived to be our first ever staunchly unmarried, virulently anti-monarchist, truly socialist Prime Minister who has to go to – wait for it - a royal wedding! A good laugh all round. I couldn’t help thinking that if Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn - the writing duo behind “Yes Minister” – were in the congregation, they would have tipped their tophats in respect.

And speaking of hats, full marks to Julia’s wardrobe team for just the right degree of comic flair.  As every sit-com writer knows, visual humour works best when you’ve got the audience asking “is this for real?”

But of course the true sign of a great comedy writer is that the gags just keep on coming. Thick and fast. Commit to spending squillions on a broadband network when the whole world’s going wireless. Funny! Design a Carbon Tax to make everyone alter their behavior but then compensate everyone so nobody has to alter their behavior. Brilliant! Or what about this for a laugh? Get the Ugly Union Dude (always a staple of classic sit-coms) to overthrow your predecessor and install you in the top job; but at the moment of theatrical climax when you need him to sell your Carbon Tax, he decides to stab you in the back if it costs just “one single job.” One single job? That’s hilarious. In the most comprehensive restructuring of the economy ever undertaken? Too funny. Talk about a pithy, needle-sharp piece of dialogue writing that in three simple words skewers the whole, mad enterprise. I was green with envy.

In any comic scenario, it’s always good to set up an “earnest buffoon”, because that way you can throw in a cheap laugh whenever you feel the audience getting bored. I say “earnest”, because the comedy is much sharper when a character who is clearly there as a joke takes themselves desperately seriously. Climate Change Commissioner would have tumbled easily off the keyboard. Classic pompous, self-important sit-com stereotype. But it is the deftness with which this character’s comic potential has been thoroughly exploited that is truly inspiring. Firstly, we establish that he earns a shitload of money to do – well, the audience never finds out what he actually does do because that’s all part of the gag. What on earth can he do, when you think about it? Then, enhance the joke in as preposterous a manner as you can think of. For example, get him to accidentally admit that even if everybody stopped all carbon emissions forthwith, it wouldn’t have any effect on the planet for over a thousand years. That should get a giggle. Next, reveal that your Climate Change Commissioner has a deal on the side to promote a product that is one of the main offenders in generating excessive energy consumption. Perfect. John Cleese would be proud. But as a writer you have to be careful – don’t over do it. BHP would be funny, but too predictable. What about an electronics manufacturer? Giant flat screen TV’s and all that? Awesome. Love it! So while the taxpayer is forking out for the Commissioner to clean up the environment, he’s busy lining his pockets thanks to Panasonic. Delicious.

But it’s always irresistible when you’re on a roll with a funny character to go one step too far and milk the gag. Tim Flannery as a “champion” who is going to sell us the merits of the NBN was, for me, not up to their usual high standard of comic writing. Somehow it’s so ridiculous I couldn’t suspend the necessary disbelief.

Unless, of course, Julia’s cunningly preparing us for the next scene. Remember, the best jokes require an elaborate set-up. So my guess is that she’ll soon have to ditch the Carbon Tax gag because the audience isn’t laughing any more, and instead she’ll have to find something else to save the planet with. At which point barmy Tim strides forward to inform us that the NBN is a must-have and worth every penny not because it will mean you can download more porn on it but because if you use your optical fibre exclusively with your new Panasonic TV it will… (long pause for comic effect)… solve Climate Change! And he’ll say it with a straight face. That would be awesome. The audience will be on the floor.

Another weapon in the comedy writer’s armoury is, of course, the evil villain. Best if you make him gay, and that he looks and sounds like Lurch in the Addams Family, and threatens doom and gloom in every utterance. That way the audience will know what they’re dealing with. No harm in spelling it out either. In fact, here is some of Julia’s irony- dripping, satirical scriptwriting at its absolute finest. I have to quote it in full because it is simply so damn funny.

“The Greens will never embrace Labor's delight at sharing the values of everyday Australians, in our cities, suburbs, towns and bush, who day after day do the right thing, leading purposeful and dignified lives, driven by love of family and nation.”

So why on earth are you in bed with them, Julia? Pure comic genius. She is, of course, referring to the characters upon whom she must now rely for her entire episode in The Lodge to be a smash comedy hit. In my opinion she can’t fail. Spot the elaborate set-up. The deliberate clash of un-reconcilable goals and incompatible motivations. The contrivance of events and situations destined to deliver, like the very best sit-coms, a spectacularly disastrous climax.

The tears are rolling down my cheeks already.

copyright Rowan Dean 2011