Woolworths and Coles: An Anzac Tale
Dr Carolyn Holbrook
A couple of weeks ago, as I was pulling out my credit card to pay for my groceries at Coles, the checkout operator asked if I wanted to donate $2 towards the Bravery Trust, to ‘show my support for Aussie servicemen and women’. She invited me to write my name on a brightly coloured card and stick it on the store’s noticeboard. My first thought was how little the card evoked Anzac Day—no Rising Sun badge and slouch hat in muted tones of khaki and brown, and no sign of the ‘A’ word. My second thought was how much the cartoon boat (was it supposed to be a navy ship?) looked like Boaty McBoatface.
The bright and cheery tone of Coles’ fundraising cards this Anzac season belies the mission of the Bravery Trust, which was established in 2014 to provide financial support to servicemen and women who are ‘struggling as a result of their service’. The Bravery Trust does not spurn those with physical wounds, but its priority is psychological injury. According to the website, more than 3000 military personnel who have served in the Middle East are currently diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression.
Though cause marketing—cashing in on the kudos to be gained from helping good causes—is standard corporate practice these days, Coles’ effort is particularly astute. Who doesn’t like the idea of helping people with PTSD, given all we hear about mental illness these days? As I admired Coles for their marketing nous, I was struck by how different their Bravery Trust initiative appears from Woolworths’ notorious ‘Fresh in Our Memories’ campaign in 2015.
While Woolworths was by no means alone in seeking to swing on the coat-tails of the much-vaunted ‘Anzac Centenary’ in 2015, it was uniquely inept. The grocery duopolist engaged a public relations firm called Carrspace, expert in ‘experiential’ marketing, to devise its Anzac strategy. The result was ‘Fresh in Our Memories’, a campaign that encouraged members of the public to upload pictures of ‘those affected by war’ to a picture generator. The generator inserted the Woolworths logo and the words ‘Fresh in Our Memories’—a nod to the company’s ‘Fresh Food People’ slogan.
The campaign was launched in the early afternoon of Tuesday 14 April. The public backlash was swift, in the way of social media, and damning, in the way of social media. Outrage spread like a bushfire; ‘IT’S ALL ABOUT PROFIT, PROFIT, PROFIT!’ wrote one commenter; ‘it is disgusting… There is nothing that this company won’t do in the name of the almighty $$$ … Worst company ever and this is so disrespectful I will never shop at one of the Woolworth’s business ever again’, chimed in another. The picture generator was hijacked by memes that quickly went viral; everyone and everything from Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd, to cute cats, piles of rotting corpses, Batman and Hitler appeared. By early evening ‘Fresh in Our Memories’ had been canned.
How can we explain the fact that Coles has struck a winner with the Bravery Trust, while Woolworths flamed out with the ‘Fresh in Our Memories’ campaign? The simple answer is that Woolworths and its public relations company failed to appreciate the extent to which Anzac functions as a kind of secular religion in contemporary Australia; an observation first made by the historian Ken Inglis in 1960.
The commercialisation of Anzac is as old as the Anzac legend itself, though the resurgence of military commemoration since the 1990s and the encroaching centenary exacerbated the phenomenon in 2015. In the lead-up to Anzac Day each year, Carlton and United Breweries flogs its beer through the shameless ‘Raise a Glass’ campaign, major newspapers peddle Anzac collectibles, the AFL hypes the ‘Anzac Day clash’ between Collingwood and Essendon, and merchandisers tout poppy earrings and Gallipoli oven gloves. Most of it passes by unremarked upon.
Woolworths’ mistake was to make the digger the centrepiece of its campaign and then fail to pay due deference to his status as a quasi-religious idol. Instead, the company slapped a cynical slogan and its own logo across the idol. To the Anzac faithful, this was an act of digital desecration: “They’re putting their name and logo and the subliminal supermarket catch cry ‘fresh’ directly on the images and memories of deceased Anzacs, dude. It’s shameful”, wrote ’sarajane’ on the Sydney Morning Herald’s digital platform. ‘How dare you appropriate the image of an Anzac soldier to sell your wares in the way that you have’, wrote an aggrieved observer on Woolworths’ Facebook page. ‘Do you know who the soldier is? Did he survive? Or don’t you even know or care? I actually feel quite ill’.
If Anzac functions as a secular faith, it is a faith with an increasingly psychological inflection. The historian Christina Twomey has written about the role of ‘trauma culture’ in enabling the resurgence of the Anzac legend during the 1980s. According to Twomey: ‘Embracing the trauma of war has been Anzac’s salvation in terms of its reinvention for a new generation’. I argue in my book, Anzac: The Unauthorised Biography, that the psychological turn is observable even earlier, in Bill Gammage’s The Broken Years (1974). By telling the stories of ordinary Australian soldiers through their letters and diaries, Gammage pioneered an intimate history of the war, one that emphasised the suffering of individual men. This newly personal perspective on the war was sustained by the wave of family historians who began, from the 1970s, to tell the stories of their fathers, uncles and grandfathers, through their letters and diaries.
Advances in technology, evolutionary science and psychology have robbed traditional religions of much of their audience. While Australians baulk increasingly at the metaphysical claims of organised religions, the emotional demand that those religions met has not diminished. With its solemn rites and incantations to sacrifice, worship and universal brotherhood, Anzac plugs a spiritual hole for many. The fact that the contemporary preoccupation with trauma has grafted so neatly onto the Anzac stem only enhances its fitness as a quasi-religion for the twenty-first century.
In supporting the Bravery Trust, Coles has astutely detected our growing concern for psychological injury. By resisting the temptation to emblazon its fund-raising initiatives with the icons of Anzac, Coles avoids the criticisms that Woolworths left itself open to. I am too realistic to ever believe that Coles’ support for the Bravery Trust can be attributed to altruism alone. But if consumer behaviour condemns ‘Fresh in Our Memories’ and applauds Coles and the Bravery Trust campaign, then capitalism has, in this instance, done its job.