How Dick Smith’s business empire trades on patriotism

It’s a de facto marriage made in populist heaven?—?the unholy union between the little Aussie huckster Dick Smith and the crass, unquestioning tabloid TV of A Current Affair.

The two were at it again like rabbits on Monday night. “Dick Smith giving away his money!” screamed the promo, “How you can cash in!” Minutes later, Tracy Grimshaw’s intro promised we’d all learn about “his latest campaign to help battlers”.

And what was this latest iteration of Smith’s legendary philanthropy? No more or less than a tacky cash giveaway stunt to promote his current commercial venture, the ailing Dick Smith’s Foods brand.

The ACA cameras followed Smith (in a silly hat) going from door to door as he handed over $500 to anyone who had one of the DSF products in their fridge or pantry. It was five minutes of pure promotion that not even Smith’s money could buy. No genuine news value, no matter of public interest?—?yet Channel Nine handed over this priceless exposure gratis and has the gall to call it “current affairs”.

ACA and Today Tonight buy anything Smith is selling because they know he’s a recognisable character sure to deliver them the kind of upbeat pap that feeds the prejudices of their audience. We’re asked to forget he’s a multimillionaire. Instead, Smith is portrayed as a plucky, idealistic little underdog fighting the righteous battle on our behalf against those evil foreign multinationals.

It’s all rolled-gold baloney, and, to their great discredit, A Current Affair plays along. The reporter of the “story”, Brady Halls, wasn’t beneath telling his viewers utter falsehoods. A few to be getting on with:

> Halls described Smith as a “manufacturer”. No, he isn’t. Dick Smith Foods is purely a licensing and marketing business. Despite all his guff about “our farmers”, Smith doesn’t grow, manufacture or even package the supermarket lines that carry his moniker and grinning dial. He just owns all the DFS names, label images and marketing apparatus and then licenses them to anyone who fits their model and is prepared to pay.

> Halls asserted that Smith “does it all purely to support Aussie farmers, factories and jobs”. No, it’s a private business. He does it all principally to make money.

> Halls stated, as fact, that “Any profits he gives away”. No, he doesn’t. Even DSF itself only claims that an undisclosed percentage of the profits is donated (to undisclosed recipients). Given that cash giveaway promotions usually signify a failing retail venture, there’s unlikely to be much profit anyway.

The hard commercial truth is that, on their own admission, Dick Smith Foods is struggling because it hasn’t been able to secure sufficient market share to guarantee prominent supermarket shelf space in the major outlets. Coles doesn’t carry DSF products at all.

So, for once, it seems Smith’s talent for capitalism might fail him. His standard modus operandi is to found a business, build it up on the back of his undoubted entrepreneurial flair and talent for publicity, then sell it for a handy profit.

He sold his chain of Dick Smith electronics shops to Woolworths; he sold Australian Geographic magazine to Fairfax (it’s now owned by ACP). No doubt he’d now love to sell Dick Smith’s Aussie Foods but, after more than a decade of sputtering underperformance, buyers might be hard to find.

More troubling in the broader social context is that faced with possible failure, Smith has climbed even further onto the patriotism bandwagon?—?the last resort of the commercial scoundrel.

If you’re desperate for sales, drape yourself in the Australian flag, print it on your products and point-of-sale material, call your lines “Bush Foods Breakfast” or “OzEmite”, repeat the phrase “Genuine Aussie” on every label?—?and hope the shoppers will come.

But Smith’s conversion to all things Australian has come somewhat late. His fortune is founded on the chain of eponymous electronics shops he sold in 1982 for $20 million. Most of the products he’d stocked were dirt cheap imports from Asia, thereby helping to put the local electronics manufacturing industry to the sword. There were no hand-on-heart “Made in Australia” pledges from Smith back then.

Similarly, Australian Geographic magazine was initially printed by Dai Nippon in Japan, although plenty of local printers could have handled the job. During that period Smith also appeared in TV commercials for Holden cars?—?made by General Motors, a foreign-owned company that repatriates most of its profits to Detroit.

Today there’s a faintly sinister overtone of strident nationalism about the way Smith promotes his current venture. The Dick Smith’s Foods website describes its products as “As Australian as you can get”.

There’s now also a spin-off site titled What a Con, which Smith introduces thus: “I have set up this website to expose the rip-offs by foreign multinational companies that exploit Australian consumers.”

On its home page the site features the Australian flag with a “PATRIOTISM” slash across one corner. Elsewhere, Smith rails against overseas companies with “no loyalty to Australia”. There are sections devoted to “Foreign Ownership in Australia Ever Increasing” and “Losing our Aussie Language”. These simplistic, ultra-nationalist positions stir an unsettling echo of Pauline Hanson.

A month ago he cranked up his Aussie Foods marketing to hysterical levels with newspaper advertising copy that shouted “Australian farmers are having to plough their crops back into the ground! We’re fighting back.”

He may only be trying to turn a dollar, but it’s the unthinking complicity of the popular media that’s the real concern here. The TV tabloids amplify Smith’s opportunistic jingoism to a vast national audience. And, deep down, just how far removed is all this from the “I was born here” provocations that we’ve heard before?

David Salter is a veteran journalist and former Media Watch executive producer.

This article first appeared on Crikey.


Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments