Consumers have made sure that Woolworths will never forget their botched attempt to cash in on the Anzac centenary. During the lead up to Anzac Day, the supermarket giant launched a website that invited Australians to share memories of war veterans and upload a commemorative profile picture to social media. The site included a meme generator, which branded images of war dead with the Woolworths logo and tagline, "Fresh In Our Memories" - a staggeringly misguided pun evoking their corporate slogan "The Fresh Food People".
|The landing page for Woolworths' short-lived campaign.|
|A Woolworths' branded commemorative profile picture.|
Like the event it claimed to commemorate, the ill-conceived campaign resulted in a bloody confrontation and ensuing retreat. The backlash on Woolworths' Facebook page was immediate. According to one commenter, "Trying to cash in on the memory of the Anzacs is possibly the trashiest thing I've seen in a very long time." Another said the campaign reflected "Inconceivably poor judgment!", adding "Not everything in the world needs to be appropriated for commercial gain".
Twitter hashtags #brandzacday and #freshinourmemories began trending throughout Australia as consumers hijacked social media to ridicule the brand for exploiting war memory. Barely three hours after the campaign launched, Woolworths took the site down and issued an apology.
Lest we forget pic.twitter.com/MBzNXjk8ut
— Rupert H (@rpy) April 14, 2015
At the going down of the prices, we will remember them #FreshInOurMemories
— Peter Hinton (@peterjhinton) April 14, 2015
#Woolsworth seems to have sent its social media team over the top against heavy machinegun fire, judging by the #FreshInOurMemories stream
— Jeff Sparrow (@Jeff_Sparrow) April 14, 2015
There was even a Hitler "Downfall" meme, adapted an iconic scene from the 2004 movie.
Despite Woolworths' assertion that the initiative was "not a marketing campaign", there is little doubt the site was designed to produce branded consumer-generated content, and encourage Australians to share this content on their social networks. It is likely that Woolworths aspired to tap into public sentiment before Anzac Day – with the aim of generating likes, brand engagement , and a strong emotional connection with consumers.
How did Australia's largest supermarket chain, supported by an army of digital marketing and social media experts, get it so wrong?
Woolworths certainly isn't the first Australian brand to exploit dead diggers for profit. Since the 1990s, marketers have recognised the growing cultural capital attached to the Anzac legend, and the benefits of aligning their brands with the aspirational national mythology.
This ambition is not new. Australian traders began to market Anzac-branded products and portray Anzac veterans in their advertising during the Great War. Astonishingly, the federal government introduced regulations protecting the word "Anzac" from use in any trade business calling or profession in 1916, enacting legislation in 1921.
However, modern marketers have approached the task with an enthusiasm and sophistication lacked by their early 20th-century counterparts. At the same time, state agencies, such as the Department of Veterans' Affairs (DVA), and special interest groups, such as the Returned and Services League (RSL) and Legacy, have recognised the rising political capital associated with the Anzac tradition, the benefits of promoting it to as many people as possible, and the potential for its proliferation through commercial activity aimed at a mass market.
The Woolworths campaign was slammed by Minister for Veteran Affairs Michael Ronaldson who said, "I have been very rigorous in ensuring that we protect the dignity of the word Anzac and that it is not used for purely commercial purposes." RSL president Ken Doolan described the campaign as "insensitive" and an "unfortunate error". Yet these bodies have embraced commercial activity for years.
While the federal government and veterans' organisations traditionally frowned upon Anzac commodification before the 1990s, they now enthusiastically sanction certain types of commercial activity, while prohibiting others. The RSL in particular has pioneered innovative new commercial partnerships and product endorsements.
There is no doubt that veterans' organisations have pursued initiatives with the very best of intentions; to raise money to support war veterans and their dependents, promote their organisations, and the Anzac tradition. But at what cost?
Commemoration and commerce have become increasingly intertwined, and the Anzac industry is often more concerned with appealing to a mass market of consumers in their leisure hours, than with historical understanding.
Australians who wish to remember the Great War can buy mass-produced Anzac biscuits, "raise a glass" of Victoria Bitter beer, and enjoy commemorative sporting spectacles such as the AFL Anzac Day Clash.
In 2015, Australians can also attend Camp Gallipoli, a music festival-style commemorative spectacular, with its own range of merchandise available exclusively from Target stores. Proceeds from merchandise will be directed to the Camp Gallipoli foundation, and distributed to the RSL and Legacy, however goods navigate a supply chain of manufacturers, marketers, distributors; all of whom will benefit financially from the initiative.
One can only imagine how Gallipoli veterans would respond to the products within the range, which include faux wool rugs, pillows and rosemary-scented candles, and trivialise and sanitise the horrors of war.
Bizarrely, the fact that commercial activity incorporates a fundraising element has become an accepted defence against claims of exploitation. Neither the Department of Veterans' Affairs, nor the RSL has demonstrated recognition of the benefits that commercial firms receive from association with the Anzac tradition, in the form of increased revenue and brand building.
Consumer culture does not necessarily trivialise war memory but the use of Anzac for brand-building purposes often results in simplified, sanitised and celebratory visions of our wartime past that reveal more about ourselves than the Anzacs. Why is our outrage limited to Woolworths' tacky marketing campaign? Perhaps their real blunder was not in appropriating Anzac to build their brand, but by doing it so badly.
This is an adapted version of an article which originally appeared in The Age on 15 April 2015.