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Would it even be a Tourism Australia campaign without controversy?

Tourism Australia

By Rajat Roy, Associate Professor of Marketing, Bond Business School

Would it even be a Tourism Australia campaign without a touch of controversy? From the people who brought you ‘Where the bloody hell are you’ and that iconic shrimp on the barbie, the nation’s top tourism organisation never fails to spark debate when it launches a new round of advertising to attract visitors. 

The global ‘Come and say g’day’ campaign has already drawn its fair share of critics, with some consumer feedback calling it ‘embarrassing’, ‘lame’, ‘retro’ and ‘year 5 class work’. Others lamented its use of a cartoon kangaroo mascot, given one of Australia’s most recognisable animals are legally culled as pests. 

The campaign, which launched on October 19 and cost around $125 million, features Ruby, a cartoon Kangaroo and Louie, a toy unicorn. The pair travel Australia in search of Uluru, stopping at various national icons including the Sydney Opera House and the Great Barrier Reef. 

The campaign is loaded with symbolism. Ruby is voiced by Aussie actress Rose Byrne and the campaign music features a re-interpretation of the classic Men at Work anthem Land Down Under from the band King Stingray in both English and Yolŋu Matha - an Indigenous language from the Northern Territory.  

The carefully chosen destinations are designed to evoke the sense of a ‘truly Australian experience’, while adding a unicorn to the storyline aims to create a sense of magic and wonder. The unicorn Louie is voiced by US actor Will Arnett. The unicorn is traditionally a symbol of good luck, magic, freedom, and divinity, and in this context it aims to symbolise the magical experience that Australia as a country has to offer. In essence, Ruby and Louie hanging out as mates transforms Australia into one magical land.  

Sounds smart, right? Australia’s most iconic symbols wrapped up in the joy of a child’s imagination and wonder. So why are people so mad about it?  

It’s the very same iconic imagery and symbolism designed to attract international visitors that’s causing locals to grind their teeth at this latest offering. It has been compared with classic Australian campaigns and icons like Paul Hogan, even lifting the ‘come and say g’day’ tagline from Hogan’s 1984 campaign. The problem with that is Australians often see iconic brands – and Hogan himself is a much-loved Australian ‘brand’ all his own - as ‘sacred’, reacting negatively to any change. They can also be dismissive of brands they perceive as changing their product to ride the coattails of a new trend or fad. 

The owners of Vegemite discovered this during a disastrous a re-branding strategy for the iconic spread. In 2009, Vegemite launched a product extension and named it Isnack2.0 via a customer contest to choose a new name. Australians were unhappy that such a strong symbol of Australian culture was trying to piggyback on the popular technology wave and was seen as the brand ignoring the history and heritage that had made it so popular with the public. 

We can see some parallels here with the Tourism Australia campaign backlash. Vegemite had to deal with falling sales and dwindling consumer interest. To rejuvenate the market, a new flavour was launched, and social media was used as a tool to engage with consumers, including the naming effort. But the whole strategy was a disaster and attracted global headlines for all the wrong reasons. 

Like Vegemite, tourism Australia is facing plummeting tourist numbers. International visitor numbers slumped to 14 percent of pre-covid levels for the year ending June 2022, and total spending was down by 22 per cent. So, the need to rejuvenate the market is a strong motivation. The connection to the original Paul Hogan campaign has been maintained through the tagline, but consumers perceive that this campaign isn’t worthy of such connection and haven’t been shy about saying so. 

Fortunately for Tourism Australia, Australians aren’t the key target audience for this ad and by all accounts it is already receiving positive responses internationally. Whether that translates into a boost in tourism remains to be seen. 

But it’s a reminder to all marketing teams, large or small, that iconic brands are strongly embedded in Australian culture and held close to peoples’ hearts. Caution is the way forward when trying to avoid a backlash. 

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