Oprah-bashing the country

VP_Oprah_Blog.jpg

  It would appear that certain Australian commentators are suffering through a ‘winter of discontent’ at the moment. Fueled by too much coffee, not enough vitamin d, and a terrible lack of perspective, they are sitting at desks trawling through the last six months of news, snuffling out old articles that raise their ire enough that they can start gnashing their teeth over. This week, it would appear that it’s Tourism Australia’s turn to (again) feel their discontented wrath.

Tourism Australia has copped it a lot in the last twelve months, and some people like to keep flogging. This time, the ‘outrage’ is centred on Tourism Australia paying $5 million to lure talk show host Oprah Winfrey and her studio audience here, to advertise and raise Australia’s tourist profile late last year. Apparently, this demonstrates Tourism Australia’s complete incompetence as a marketing body. Of course, this was debated at the time it occurred, but here it comes again. Why? Ah, because six months on, commentators have 'cleverly' constructed, oops, I mean, 'discovered' 'proof'.

Apparently, corroboration of this massive flop has been found in Tourism Australia's own statistics. The evidence cited by the media, is that since the show aired in January this year, visitor numbers to Australia from the U.S have actually declined, compared to the same period last year. On the face of it, the argument could work. Oprah came, Oprah hawked, figures declined, end of story. Of course, conveniently omitted, are the statistics that show that tourism numbers from most major tourist markets also declined over the same period. Does no one remember the GFC, or all the natural disasters that have occurred in our 'neighbourhood' lately, perhaps curbing tourist enthusiasm and/or ability to travel to this part of the world? It would appear not. Poor Tourism Australia!

Now, I’m no particular fan of Oprah, nor a detractor. I haven’t watched talk shows since uni, and definitely don’t like the format. I didn't watch the show in question when it aired, and didn't join in, or even watch the local hype when she was here. Oprah just wasn’t my thing.

But, does it deserve the negative commentary it’s generated? I really don’t think so. Was it a Roman candle of an advertising stunt? Yes, I think it was meant to be. Got your attention, didn’t it, good or bad?! In the short term, was Oprah (and the local broadcasters who televised almost every minute) the first major beneficiary of the coverage? Definitely. Were Oprah’s goals and motivations different from Tourism Australia’s. Undoubtedly. Does the fact that Oprah ‘won’ something first, mean that Tourism Australia who paid for it, can’t? Since when? It would appear that some elements of the public don’t understand the notion of ‘win-win’ scenarios, and how parties at the same event can possess different goals. I guess that possessing all the facts, displaying a balanced perspective and critical thinking skills, while acknowledging views other than your own just isn’t convenient to opinionated ‘soapboxers’.

For a start, are the commentators who are calling it a failure, even arguing a valid point? I haven’t heard or found any evidence that in staging the event, Tourism Australia’s goal was to prompt a great influx of tourists from America within six months. Surely to prove that the exercise was a waste of money, you need to prove that it was a goal to start with?

Are we really that short-sighted, and expect gratification that quickly, anyway? The show didn't air worldwide until January this year. Barely six months has passed. For a start, a holiday from the U.S to Australia is not a long weekend jaunt to Bali, New Zealand or Perth. It's a long haul commitment, requiring money, planning and motivation.

I had the privilege of doing the reverse trip earlier this year, and it certainly wasn’t a snap decision. It was the realisation of a trip of a lifetime, which included NYC. However, in reality, as part of a fixed earning household, it couldn’t happen overnight. Between work and family commitments and schedules, the associated costs of international travel, trip planning, and northern vs southern hemisphere seasonal conflicts, it took months for to get us there. From first serious suggestion to take off it was a full eighteen months to action (we first toyed with the idea two or three years earlier). A lot of that came down to budgetary considerations, and saving. We didn't want to carry a lot of debt back with us from an overseas holiday. As it was, given our budget and work commitments, we still couldn’t afford to travel at the height of the U.S peak summer season.

Weekly travel shows, endless advertising of ‘cheap’ flights, and a small percentage of frequent jetsetters within the poulation, might give us a perception that people are constantly travelling around the world willy-nilly, and at the drop of a hat. But, is that the reality for your average Western tourist, with work commitments, household costs, and dependents? When I say, leisure tourist, I don’t mean business people travelling on a company tab. Australia is not a ‘long weekend’ destination to Northern hemisphere travellers. For America’s ‘Bali’ of short stays, look to Mexico.

Did anyone really expect American viewers to watch the episode, and be so instantly enamoured that they booked a trip to our shores the next day, or the next week - and for the Australian winter, just as they were gearing up for their own summer?

With the decline and recession of the global economy, the American dollar's subsequent loss of potency, coupled with current employment pressures on the average American worker and family, holidaying is even more likely to be a medium to long-term aspiration. Especially one involving large capital outlay to the other side of the world. In the last five years, the average visitor from the U.S spent an average of 23 days in Australia, just under a month. That length of stay requires motivation, planning, and a good amount of money. It doesn’t mean it won’t happen, it just won’t happen overnight.

Aha, say the bashers, if it's going to take so long anyway, then why did we spend the money on Oprah to start with?!

My opinion, is that this demonstrates a real point of difference in how Tourism Australia is now approaching its marketing spend. It targets a completely different channel of marketing, compared to  traditional TV advertising campaigns, which are limited to targeted, but isolated markets (and run at much greater expense).

Oprah was listed as "one of the 100 people who most influenced the 20th Century" and "one of the most influential people" from 2004 to 2011 by TIME. The "Oprah Effect", or the power of Oprah's opinions and endorsement to influence public opinion, especially consumer purchasing choices, has been well-documented, in domains as diverse as book sales, beef markets, and election voting. Not only is Oprah one of the most influential people in North America, the reach of her talk show, accompanying magazine and online presence extends worldwide. As a result, her adventure to Australia reached a global audience of tens of millions of potential visitors (and let's not forget, potential purchasers of Australian products, as well). That’s not just influence over Americans, that’s global traction.

Fine, you may sneer, but why did we have to bring her and her audience here?

Ultimately, because Oprah's talk show format is also a world leader in 'testimonial' marketing. Testimonials possess two important characteristics — source credibility and similarity — both of which have been found to positively impact on customer belief and attitude change in both marketing and psychology. Testimonials are currently one of the most potent marketing tools.

It focuses on people watching Oprah and her audience engaged in positive and personal experiences, which portray Australia as friendly, valuable, and worthwhile. Effectively, they 'testify' that Australia is a great place to visit, through their enjoyment of their personal experience. In creating satisfied customers, in the form of Oprah and her audience, Tourism Australia was looking to affirm the quality, depth, and/or value of Australia’s products and services to viewers worldwide. If the customer on screen ‘buys’ into what they see and hear watching the experience of others, they sell themselves on the idea, and are more likely to be motivated to experience the same - especially if it's an aspirational, more costly item, such as world travel. It has much greater impact than just sending Cate Blanchett or Croc Dundee to an American studio with a script and a show reel, to tout the virtues of Australia to a passive, seated studio audience.

In the U.S alone, 7.4 million people watched Oprah daily. The largest segment of viewers were female, white, and over the age of 55, representing about half the total audience of about 3.7 million viewers. Overall, 2% of all 18 to 49-year-old Americans watch Oprah. Before finishing this year, her show aired in 140 countries, and was the most popular talk show worldwide every year since 1998.

Why is that significant? Why on earth would we want older women watching Australia? It might challenge your personal perceptions, but it’s because of power and influence. In the United States alone, the average woman in this demographic annually spends 2.5 times more than the average American on consumer goods, and is the primary purchaser of computers, cars, banking and financial services, and other 'big-ticket' items (including holiday travel). The average 55 to 75 year-old consumer’s role has changed in recent decades “from homemaker to purchaser of security, convenience and luxury items.” As well as purchasing, there is also the influence these women have on male partners and family members, in recommending goods and services for purchase. With this particular demographic being the healthiest, wealthiest and most active generation of women in history, according to "Demographics" by Mark Miller, companies now tailor their message according to their needs by life stage and health, rather than chronological age.

Marketers understood that advertising on 'The Oprah Winfrey Show' capitalised on that trend. In television terms, the daytime time slot is also a cost effective time period to reach those women, especially as advertising rates are lower during daytime programming, compared to primetime hours. With 75% of all purchases in the U.S made by the same female demographic that watched Oprah, it’s no wonder that advertisers used the show as the perfect vehicle to capture the attention of their target market, including Tourism Australia.

(You might scoff at this intentional bias of pro-female marketing, but it is a reality, and it's actually proliferated by companies dominated by male CEO's and executives).

The 'real' value of advertising sponsorships is always hard to quantify. However, given Oprah's worldwide daily audience of approximately 14.6 million, Tourism Australia's $5 million worth of  advertising amounted to spending just 34c per person for everyone who watched the programme. In anyone's terms, that is an extremely cheap price for reaching 14.6 million people.

Regardless, bashers sneer, it was still $5 million dollars of taxpayers money!

Yes, five million dollars seems a crazy amount of money to me, Joe(sephina) Blogs. But, is it realistic for me to baulk at the figure, given that it was for advertising an entire country, to a worldwide audience? Really, it seems like peanuts, and Australia as one of the richest and strongest economies in the world currently can afford it.

In 2009-10, the Federal Government recorded tax revenue of $270.9 billion. In the 2009-10 Budget, the largest spending areas for taxpayer funds were budgeted to be: social security and welfare ($116.5b), other purposes ($58.8b), health ($51.2b), education ($35.2b), defence ($21b) and general public services ($17.8b). 'Other purposes' mainly comprise revenue assistance to State, Territory and Local Governments, while 'general public services' refers to money paid to run the government, as well as public research and foreign aid. If we can spend $21 billion on defence, why not a fraction of that on positive marketing of the Australian experience? 

If you want to bash a case of ill-conceived taxpayer spending, how about the annual Melbourne Grand Prix? This event has posted a multi-million dollar loss every year that it has been run. In 2010, this loss was posted at $49.2 million, more than double the amount lost four year’s earlier, in 2006. A loss  countered by a state government ‘investment’ of the same amount in taxpayer funds. The last publicised Government statistics from 2008, claimed that the race generated up to $175 million revenue for Victoria. However, that same year, the Auditor-General found that the cost of hosting the grand prix outweighed those benefits by $6.7 million. Yet, even last year a further $7.8 million capital investment was allocated by the government for capital upgrade works to the race venue. Now, if you’re going to concern yourself with perceived misuse of taxpayer’s money, at least be consistent. Funding the Melbourne Grand Prix isn’t just a one-off cost, and has been proven to be a total loss to the Victorian Government (and taxpayers) since it began. Now, that’s a real, gross and ongoing ‘waste’ of taxpayer money, in my opinion!

I would suggest that bringing Oprah here was not a direct ploy by Tourism Australia to get Americans on planes within six months (nor is it all they spent their marketing budget on last year).  I imagine that they have a more realistic, and medium- to long-term view of the potential 'Oprah Effect'. This was a campaign to introduce Australia to a large worldwide audience, cheaply by global standards, geared to subtly win the hearts and minds of viewers, with fun and positive experiences and products on display, rather than with a hard sell. It was a change of tactic that acknowledged the changing trends in marketing and advertising practices worldwide. In the face of earthquakes, tsunamis, and GFC's, it presented Australia as a positive, attractive, and fun place to escape to. Good on Tourism Australia for trying something different!

It’s a pity that it didn’t generate the same thought, consideration and acknowledgment from commentators. But, that’s not what social commentary is all about, is it? Why completely analyse facts, and display critical thinking skills, when you can pour scorn on any decision that you don’t personally agree with, while bagging the rich and famous? Being small-thinking, and ‘bah humbug’ about the country, that’s much more ‘fun’.  I'd recommend that they drink less, and get out of the office more!

If you’d like to learn about Tourism Australia’s full strategy, including domestic tourism (which I think is just as crucial to the economy) their website can be found at www.tourism.australia.com/en-au/.

Disclaimer: I have no personal or professional affiliations, or dealings with either Tourism Australia, or Oprah Winfrey - in any way, shape or form - although I do go on holiday from time to time!