And so it begins; a nationwide rollout and arguably a monumental waste of taxpayer’s money. I refer, of course, not to the National Broadband Network itself, but to the advertising campaign to promote it.
A snaking optical beam, the lovechild of a green light-sabre and an angry garden hose, whizzes around the nation, connecting us to each other and ushering in the dawn of a new era. The sun is rising over a green hillock (the light on the hill, perhaps?), as a friendly neighbour trims the hedge. Mum and kid, ensnared by the green thingy, wave goodbye as Dad heads off to work. The city glimmers on the horizon, so we’re not exactly out in the sticks, so no need to mention our two new satellites. The semiotics leave nothing to chance. There’s a white picket fence that would tickle John Howard’s fancy and hardly any cars. Luckily, there is a bus stop handy or a nice gentle hill to cycle to work along should you be the sort of person who switched your lights off for an hour on Saturday night in order to save the planet. Which isn’t the non sequitur it may seem, given that this new campaign to sell the merits of the NBN is courtesy of the ad agency behind Earth Hour, Sydney’s formidable Leo Burnetts.
The light-sabre/garden hose graphic would have made a great animation device (at this stage the campaign is print and radio only), but at least it also works as a typeface, boldly informing us that ‘Australia’s National Broadband Network is on its way to you.’ As far as snappy and intriguing headlines go, it’s not quite up there with DDB’s famous “Lemon”, although there are those who would argue that that might have been more apt.
This is the sort of headline that bureaucrats love and copywriters despair of. As is the wont these days, to understand precisely what’s on offer you have to visit the website where “on its way to you” is spelled out with an interactive map. Checking out my own suburb, I learn "work is to commence within three years." Having just done some home reno’s I'm aware that to your average tradie that sort of promise is open to interpretation.
In what is hopefully not an omen for the NBN, the print ad also carries a QR code – one of those crossword-looking boxes that were the coolest internet fad a couple of years ago but are now largely redundant.
“Stage 1” has been helpfully highlighted on the ad, so we can assume that that is the most important part of the brief. Having worked on the ill-fated NSW Labor’s “Metro” campaign, I can confirm that “Stage 1” is adspeak for “we’ve got to show that stuff is actually happening because we’ve been banging on about this thing for years and nobody believes it’s for real.”
According to the tautological blurb, Stage 1 involves a “three year rollout plan (that) includes those areas where the network is active, where construction is currently underway and where work will commence within the next three years.”
As Malcolm Turnbull was quick to point out: "That doesn't mean it will be completed. It doesn't mean it will be half completed, and says nothing about how many will be connected."
Branding the campaign as spin, Turnbull claims it is “very duplicitous saying there will be 3.3 million households in areas where work is… 'planned to commence by June 30, 2015'.” At the press conference to launch the rollout, NBN CEO Mike Quigley remained vague about the precise figures, preferring TV-friendly hand gestures and obfuscations such as “continue to ramp (up).”
None of which is surprising, because the “rollout” campaign is not what it pretends to be. The numbers, the timelines, and all the details are a necessary smokescreen to disguise an overtly political ad campaign as a legitimate government information campaign, in order to justify spending taxpayers’ money on it. At their press conference, Julia Gillard and Stephen Conroy were unconvincing on the detail but couldn’t hide their excitement about the political strategy – holding a tantalizing jar of lollies out to the public and then snatching it away if Abbott gets elected.
“Your access to broadband is not safe if there is a change of government,” threatened the Prime Minister, neatly conflating her public network with any and all broadband systems, which may be OK as a re-election soundbite but is somewhat misleading as part of an information campaign.
“What Malcolm Turnbull is trying to sell to this country is a candle compared to a lightbulb,” spluttered Stephen Conroy, clearing getting mixed up with his Earth Hour metaphors.