January 27, 2024

Should We Give the Aussie Lamb Ads The Pork Chop?

Lamb Ads Will Get the Pork Chop

I’m not a betting man, but I reckon some time soon The Australian Lamb ads will get the pork chop. It’s had its day. It’s going off like a bucket of prawns in the sun mate! (Insert Aussie witticism here). The famous Aussie lamb ads are becoming cringy as they lean into more and more complex matters that defy resolve.

The ads have been something of a cultural moment in Australia over the last twenty or so years, promoting good old Aussie lamb in the lead up to Australia Day. They were initially narrated by football identity Sam Kekovich (he makes guest appearances in them now), and the first couple were sensational. And funny. Some have been hit and miss, but they’re worth a watch. (You can see all of them here.).

Kekovich’s deadpan Aussie pride, and his take-down of our prejudices was all a gentle (lamb) ribbing of our nation, as we gathered ourselves for one final holiday in the summer before all of the back to school and “have-to’s” of everyday life kicked back in again.

There was a sense that somehow Australia, for all of its diversity, was a fairly united country, and that it was somehow safe to point things out that we can laugh about. Whether that was true or not, it was certainly the perception. The ads didn’t take themselves too seriously, because, let’s face it, we didn’t take ourselves too seriously. We didn’t take Australia Day too seriously (well at least I never have, and for some significant reasons which I pointed out on Australia Day 2017).

All all of that has changed. I watched the latest lamb ad for 2024, and was struck by the fact that the past couple of years, the theme has tapped into some of the most divisive issues we’ve faced in Australia, and some of the most disconcerting events. And while they are funny, there’s a sense that no one’s going to do any laughing out loud. Indeed the previous playful “unAustralian” concept in the ads has been binned.

It was Australia Day yesterday and no one was doing much. Not much celebration. Well not in the ‘devil-may-care” attitude of the past. There were protests at Parliament against Invasion Day as has become the norm. There were rejections of Australia Day, obfuscations of Australia Day, and somewhat prickly defences of Australia Day. But not a lot of celebration to be honest.

Lamb ads are starting to get a roasting

This year’s lamb ad topic was the Generation Gap, and it has its humour. It’s a nice take on the generation stereotypes, playing on the Boomer housing idol, the Generation X self-loathing, The Gen Y/Millennial dawning realisation that they’re not young any longer, and the Gen Z sense of anger and despair about pretty much anything (coupled with a brittle confidence that comes with living most of their lives online).

Getting a Roasting

Yet the last couple of lamb ads are touching on topics we are struggling to talk about with any civility any longer. Try taking about housing costs, COVID-19 mask mandates, gender and identity, what it means to be “unAustralian” or whatever, and try doing it on social media.

Chances are such conversations will lead to a lot of heat, and not alll that much light. Polarisation is just a short conversation away. And it’s not just the subjects themselves. The ads are being pitched around the celebration of a day that has become more serious, more divided and definitely more hostile than I can remember.

But with lamb coming to save the day? Disunity can be dispelled as we all recognise that we’re diverse but stronger as one.

Ah, “Stronger As One”. That was the banner in every stadium during the National Basketball League (NBL) Pride Round last weekend, in which my son and I attended one of the fixtures, which I wrote about here. Yet there is no “one” in Australia any longer. It’s clear that the level of fractiousness and hostility in our country is on the rise.

The Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, presented The Voice last year as an opportunity to unite the nation. But all that it revealed was that the divisions run way deeper than anyone in Canberra can begin to imagine. For such a smart man I wonder why he had not picked that the unity horse had long since bolted. Perhaps that’s the echo-chamber that accompanies a lifetime of partisan politics.

We’re not as divided as the USA, yet. In a sense our fractured nation is at NBL levels of quality still, not quite NBA. Though not for want of trying. Race, gender, sexuality, religion, tearing down statues, defund the police, urban/rural divide; it’s all there in NBL form.

Writing in The Sydney Morning Herald yesterday, Nick Bryant kinda stole my thunder about the lamb ads, (or else I plagiarised his, or whatever the new term is that is being devised to cover up plagiarism on university campuses these days).

Bryant writes:

Disunity, alas, has been the direction of travel for years, and new faultlines have opened up. The housing affordability crisis is often cast in generational terms, as a fight between cashed-up Boomers, with their portfolios of investment properties, and cash-strapped younger Australians burdened with crushing rents. It was brilliantly parodied in the annual Australian lamb advertisement, “The Generation Gap”, which cast Boomers, Millennials and members of Gen Z as warring tribes. The ad was the brainchild of creative agency The Monkeys, which knows a thing or two about disunion. In the run-up to the referendum, it also produced the “You’re the Voice” advertisement, which showed that not even a singer with the convening power of Farnsie could bring the country together.

Lamb or Tofu?

Bryant points out the four “G”s of disunity, including the generational one mentioned. The other three? Gender, Graduation, Geography. They speak for themselves don’t they? In another article back in 2016, Australian demographer Bernard Salt brilliantly called the division the “Goat’s Cheese Curtain” – the vast cultural gap that is highlighted between the inner and outer suburbs of Australian cities. Or perhaps “lamb versus tofu”.

When it comes to cheese, within the inner suburbs there is nary a Kraft Singles slice in sight, or if there is, then it’s travelled outside its postcode. And the outer suburbs? It’s either we buy goat’s cheese this month, or we pay the electricity bill, it can’t be both.

Yet these “Gs” don’t speak for everyone. They don’t tell the whole tale. And in a sense, it’s Nick “Goat’s Cheese” Bryant telling an inner urban story to inner urbanites. There’s a definite attempt being pitched that to be a conservative these days you have to have no education, and you have to be from an outer suburban and rural area. And that both of these things mean that your star is on the wane culturally.

That’s not true. I’m doing some work with some exceptionally gifted – and young – city types who are better educated than I would ever hope to be, and they hold to conservative values (in the best sense of that word, which is also the sense that is being pilloried often by progressives). Several of them happen to live in Canberra too!

And it’s not as if the younger generations are going to continue the tertiary education trend. In fact here in my home state of Western Australia, the local paper lamented that less than thirty per cent of upper school students were taking subjects that would qualify them for university entry.

To which I say “So what?” One third seems to be about right. It was in the past, before everyone was told that they should be aiming for university. And what happened when everyone aimed to be super? No one was.

And even major corporations are realising this, and adjusting their hiring frameworks accordingly. In a recent article in The Wall Street Journal: Why Americans Have Lost Faith in the Value of College, Douglas Belkin reports that companies such as IBM and Deloitte are cutting graduate degree requirements for many roles. And the reasons include the falling standard of college as Delkin’s piece points out: “A quarter of college graduates do not have basic skills in numeracy and one in five does not have basic skills in literacy,”.

The levels of college education in the West will start to fall as young people choose options that suit their lifestyles, options that don’t risk putting them in an education-debt trap, and options that align with their own values, and perhaps keep them out lit the firing line of those with other values. New institutions, more robust and more intellectually rigorous, will rise up over time.

Now note that the less than impressive proficiency levels for numeracy and literacy is for coming out of college, not going in! Yet it’s not just about proficiency standards, it’s about cultural hegemony.

The recent debacle in the USA, in which two college presidents were forced out over their equivocation around whether calling for Jewish genocide was acceptable on campus, despite those same campuses clamping down heavily on language disagreements around matters of gender and identity, was a wake up call to many Americans, and a rallying cry to many conservatives iced out of the academic halls.

Now these changes won’t remove from power those who hold to so-called progressive frameworks – in fact the political class will continue to hold more and more power – but it will mean that the rest of Australia – as in the USA – won’t travel with them. And that simply means that the political class will have to find other ways to ensure that its vision for Australia is enacted.

If elections are fractious and fragile, and PMs and parties are given short shrift on a continual basis, then progressive politicians in particular will look beyond legislation in parliament to interpretation in the courts. That’s been a strategy in the past and I would expect that to increase in order of magnitude.

And perhaps that’s where Bryant fails to launch all of his missive missiles in the right direction. He goes on to say this in light of the failure of the Voice:

After the ACT became the only territory or state to vote yes, the nation’s bush capital also became easier to stereotype as an outlier: a progressive haven overly populated by left-wing public servants and journalists out of touch with mainstream Australians.

A Beef with Bryant

That’s not a stereotype actually Nick. It’s not a made-up story. It’s true. The nation’s capital was an outlier in this matter, just as it is has been in just about every cultural matter in the past decades. That’s why it’s in the ACT that euthanasia for 14 year olds is being seriously considered. That’s why it’s in the ACT that a private, religious hospital can be taken over by the government with no recourse. It is an outlier in ever way. And to suggest it’s merely a stereotype promulgated by those outside the Goat’s Cheese Curtain both verbally diminishes the problem, and then actually exacerbates it.

I speak to Christians in the ACT and, if they’re orthodox in their views on matters around anthropology and sexuality, they keep their heads well down. Further down than in any state or territory I have been to, barring, perhaps, Victoria, which has just come off a decade of the most insidious political “divide and conquer” regime seen in recent memory.

The obvious solution would be this: If you’re the direction-setters of the rest of the nation, and then the nation doesn’t go in the direction you have set – your vision of human flourishing -, then perhaps listening to the rest of the nation, and getting out there to find out not just “what” they think, but “why” they think it, would be a good idea.

And here’s a hint” The “why” is not just because the rest of the nation are retrograde Hicksville types who yearn for the 1950s.

Even Bryant’s claim that it’s easier to stereotype Canberra is a little like saying “I’m sorry that you think I hurt you”, rather than examining the hurt in the first place. But perhaps that’s the point. If there is a gap in terms of generation, gender, graduation and geography, it can only be the fault of everyone else, right?

I say that slightly facetiously, but there’s a sense of pride in being more enlightened than others, that insists that an electoral defeat is simply proof that you were right all along. Say what you like about ex-PM John Howard (“Who?” as the Gen Z voice asks in the 2024 lamb ad), but his safety valve was his insistence that the Australian people, when it comes to voting, always get it right. He honoured them in that sense. He never despised them.

And, incidentally, that’s why Howard is insistent that Donald Trump should never be US President again, because he tried to overturn the will of the people when he had lost. In that sense, there’s a great irony that both Trump and his progressive enemies have a common desire to push forward a vision for the nation that MUST be implemented despite the will of the people. And if the will of the people doesn’t line up with that vision then the people are clearly wrong. And they should not be allowed to impede!

But now in Australia, it’s despising all the way down when it comes to how we deal with those who differ to us. And that’s on both sides of the fence. Bryant is right, the age of unity – or even the impression that such an age exists – is past:

Perhaps in these polarised times a genuine sense of togetherness is unattainable, and something we will only experience in sporadic bursts: during moments of national horror, such as the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009, and national ecstasy, such as the march of the Matildas, whose success during last year’s Women’s World Cup neutered critics who initially bemoaned their demands for equal pay and eyed them as potential cannon fodder in the culture wars. Certainly, on January 26, I never expect to experience the same sense of kinship and cohesion that Sam Kerr and her team inspired, for this is a nation bisected by its national day.

“These polarised times”. It sounds like Bryant is expecting such times to be a passing phase. Personally I think they are here to stay. And I’m not super keen on actual tragedy or sporting triumph being the rallying points for unity.

Hey we didn’t win the World Cup, but at least there’s another deadly bushfire season to look forward to!

As the Pride Round in basketball showed, we’re seeking a sense of unity in something that really doesn’t have the deep traction to provide it, or is indeed a sign of the disunity in the first place. As so many of our more insightful cultural commentators have observed, the loss of the cohesive Christian framework (whether it was acknowledge or not) in the West has unsettled us even if we don’t know why. We’re looking for something to replace it, but what could? Meanwhile some of those cultural commentators, the likes of Tom Holland, Jordan Peterson, Douglas Murray, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and now that rogue Russell Brand, are revisiting the Christian roots of the West. Perhaps there was something in it after all?

And since we don’t know what could unite us, and since it’s too hard to cobble a unity ticket together, we’re now no longer interested in unity. Nope! Now we’re just trying to get by.

Skewered by Anxiety

We are trying to get by because so many of us are riven by huge fissures of anxiety – a societal malaise that goes deeper and wider than any personal anxieties people may experience. We’re skewered by anxiety. And all this, despite living in one of the safest and wealthiest places on the planet – ever.

We send our young people to study at universities which tell them that the very foundations that gave rise to those institutions were rotten from the start. And those young people walk past posters on every campus noticeboard telling them that the planet is doomed anyway, so what’s the point? I mean, what’s there NOT to be anxious about?

In my forthcoming book, Futureproof: How to Live for Jesus in a Culture That Keeps on Changing, I tackle some of the many anxieties we’re facing. And I recognise that both Christians and non-Christians alike experience them. I also recognise that Christians are increasingly divided along the same lines as non-Christians. The four “G”s seem to be almost as important to how many of us are doing church, and who we are doing church with, as the other, often neglected “G” – the Gospel – does.

And I don’t think there are easy answers. Nothing that can close these major cultural tectonic divides in a hurry. No lamb ads will makes us all laugh at our own intransigence and consider the opinions of others in more thoughtful ways. No lamb can do that.

But maybe a Lamb can. I think the true Lamb advertisement is the church, the people of God. Yes, that’s right, the church, with all of its flaws, is the unity ticket that will model to the fractured culture what true unity looks like and what can create it. And it has to start off small. It will start off in the “tiny politics” of the local congregation.

Here’s a taste of what I write:

I want the church to be what I call “repellently attractive”. I want our communities to be a conundrum to the watching society. Sure, they may be repelled initially by the fact that we won’t sign up to the cultural unity ticket or march in the rainbow parade. But when tough times come, meals will be made for those who are suffering or lonely. Husbands and wives will demonstrate a love for each other that belies their circumstances. Workers will be faithful and humble, never clocking off when they shouldn’t or belittling others for the sake of their own gain. When those things happen, a teeny bit of envy will seep into those watching. Jesus is our peace. If we can build our foundation on the unity given to us by the Spirit of God, then we can out- relate the culture that we live in. When it comes to unity in the church, the sky’s the limit!

Perhaps this sounds a trifle twee. It certainly could be (mis)read as a call to quietism. It’s neither. The situation that the early church-faced was far more anxiety-inducing than we face, at least in terms of actual hostility from an imposing political force. But the basis of the lack of anxiety among God’s people became the basis upon which a Christianised understanding of the world – the understanding that has been the West’s for centuries – stood.

I’d love you to buy a copy and see how the gospel provides what our society desperately lacks. And to see that it will take a Lamb, more than a lamb ad to fix it.

Futureproof comes out on Feb 1. You can order a copy here.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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