Bankrolling Oprah: The New Tourist Strategy

Fifty per cent of all advertising is wasted, says the marketing cliché. The problem is figuring out which fifty per cent.

Last week we had a rare burst of honesty about the usefulness of the money governments spend on high profile tourism campaigns. The former Tourism Minister John Brown admitted, “We spent hundreds of millions of dollars over 30 years without much effect, I must say that honestly.”

Brown was a minister in the Hawke government when he commissioned and oversaw the famous Paul Hogan “Throw another shrimp on the barbie” ads during the 1980s. That Hogan campaign is constantly held up as the greatest success story of Australian tourism. It’s the yardstick by which all other campaigns are measured.

So his admission it’s all been an enormous waste of cash is unlikely to feature prominently in Tourism Australia’s next annual report.

Brown was helping announce Oprah’s visit to Australia. Her visit is being heavily subsidised by Australian taxpayers: Queensland is chipping in $400,000, New South Wales between $1 and $2 million, and the federal government $1.5 million.

Oprah is personally worth an estimated US$2.5 billion, so clearly she doesn’t need the money.

But Brown doesn’t want us to be “cynical about the cost”. The current tourism minister, Martin Ferguson, is sure it is “money well spent”.

Special Oprah-in-Australia episodes will go to air next January alongside Tourism Australia’s G’Day USA campaign. And, the government hopes, American dollars will flood in.

Maybe millions for Oprah will succeed after millions for “Where the bloody hell are you?”, the Baz Lurhmann Australia tie-in campaign, and 2004’s “Australia: A Different Light” with Delta Goodrem and Richie Benaud, failed.

The Oprah effect can turn a book into a bestseller just by being featured on her program. Our tourism bureaucrats are hoping that scales to continents.

But I don’t want to dwell too much on the specifics of the Oprah visit.

The federal government’s thinking about tourism has always been woolly. Tourism promotion has been a swamp in to which the government has poured cash and consultants for decades.

In Crikey in June, Noel Turnbull pointed out the government is running two simultaneous marketing campaigns, with contradictory messages. The first is a branding campaign which suggests there’s more to Australia than people think. The second is a tourism campaign which suggests there isn’t; that we’re all about glossy surfaces and pretty landscapes.

One wonders how many marketing and public relations consultants are going to feed on the Oprah campaign.

But why are governments doing tourist promotion at all?

The overwhelming beneficiaries of tourism dollars are private industry: hotels, restaurants, transport, souvenir shops, pubs, cafes, barbecue manufacturers and shrimp farms. Tourism promotion does their marketing for them – the government spends millions of dollars trying find customers.

Certainly, the government gains a small amount of money from the GST levied on things tourists might buy. But the same holds true for all Australian industries selling products to Australian nationals – the government gains a little from every sale. So such logic would suggest the entire advertising industry should be subsidised by government.

If the benefits of promotion are so enormous, the tourism industry should be paying for it themselves. There’s no reason they can’t band together in another of their many peak bodies to sponsor international marketing campaigns. Let industry discover which half of advertising works and which half doesn’t.

Government policies designed to promote tourism almost always end in disappointment, as John Brown recognised.

But we don’t only push out ads. We also spend vast sums on events to try to lure in overseas crowds.

The major events strategies of Commonwealth and state governments are predicated on a belief that big sporting contests translate into big touristy payoffs.

This month is the 10th anniversary of the Sydney Olympics. We ran a good event. But we got a bad Olympic hangover. Visitor numbers to New South Wales actually declined relative to other Australian states. It’s not our fault: Beijing and Athens had the Olympic hangover too.

The Sydney Olympics was a bigger deal than Oprah’s tour ever could be. We earned a great deal of international goodwill and publicity in those few weeks in 2000. But tourism went backwards.

In Victoria, the Grand Prix – the pride and joy of the Victorian tourism lobby – isn’t even paying for itself anymore. It posted a $49.2 million loss this year, and was promptly bailed out by the state government.

Here’s hoping Australia doesn’t win the privilege of hosting the World Cup.

There’s good reason to be sceptical that Oprah is the tourism spend to buck the trend. The former tourism minister may be optimistic about Oprah’s visit but history tells us we shouldn’t be.