“More than another dead animal in the fridge”: How Meat and Livestock Australia uses ad controversy for success

Emma Koehn /

Meat and Livestock Australia

Source: Meat and Livestock Australia

It’s two weeks until Australia Day, which means it’s time for Meat and Livestock Australia’s all-singing, all-dancing plea for the country to buy lamb products in the organisation’s annual January campaign launch.

Having courted significant controversy throughout 2017 — when its depiction of religious figures sitting down together to enjoy lamb offended many with its portrayal of vegetarian deity Ganesha — MLA’s latest effort draws on the idea that Australian politics is becoming increasingly polarised.

In the clip, the “left” and “right” of a suburban cul de sac engage in a dance-off prior to being united by the harmony-inducing properties of lamb.

The campaign hasn’t received the immediate outcry of last year’s religious feast, but it has gained traction on social media and again prompted blowback from vegetarian and vegan groups. Meat-free business Alternative Meat Co has even released its own rebuttal video questioning whether meat consumption really unites Australians.

For years now, Meat and Livestock Australia has attracted widespread complaints for campaigns like “Operation Boomerang”, with scenes like the one showing the burning of a vegan’s coffee table prompting outcry from those who don’t eat meat.

However, advertising experts tell SmartCompany there is a clear reason MLA keeps using the same viral-focused strategy when trying to convince people to eat lamb — and its commitment to this approach holds lessons for other brands.

Understanding the power of attention

Media and technology consultant Nic Hodges says while some may complain about MLA’s strategy, the organisation’s campaigns are “very well considered”, and there is nothing “off the cuff” about the way these ads are put together.

“You [brands] need to create this kind of ‘cognitive availability’,” Hodges says.

It’s getting harder and harder to get brand awareness. It’s becoming more expensive and things are more limited in terms of options, so one brilliant way is to simply create controversy.” 

The strength of MLA’s strategy lies in the consistency of the approach, but also the calculated way in which the campaigns generate some controversy or concern in the community, but never take things too far, Hodges says.

You go out and offend a very small percentage of people with something that is, to be honest, not hugely offensive. I think that’s a very good strategy — they understand how far they can push it.” 

Keeping things consistent

Marketing expert and adjunct professor at Melbourne Business School, Mark Ritson, believes those in the advertising community that say MLA is just using the same old tricks are missing the point of the effectiveness of their approach.

You’ve got agencies that are in love with always doing something new, something sexy or using VR headsets, but that can pass the consumer by,” Ritson says. 

By comparison, the Australia Day lamb ads and longer form video campaigns that MLA has run for years now send a clear and consistent message to the target audience.

“This campaign is designed to get people in that target market to buy meat,” he says.

“Its longer term goal is trying to position lamb as something other than another dead animal in the fridge — position it as a product that brings Australians together.” 

A product like lamb can easily “disappear from saliency”, so it’s important to keep creating campaigns that are shareable and provide widespread TV coverage, Ritson says.

Hodges agrees that the key strength of the approach is creating a number of ads in a row that get consumers to pay attention.

“Brand growth comes through attention; there’s the classic thing that there’s no such thing as bad press,” he says.

And there’s another lesson in the MLA approach, says Ritson: sticking with one idea could be the most powerful tool a brand has.

While other local brands “stumble around like a drunken sailor” trying to get consistency, MLA has used one strategy for the long haul.

They’ve held the line, and you could need ten years to get any really central position across,” he says. 

“There are probably other approaches for campaigns out there, but they’ve given this one a chance.”

Never miss a story: sign up to SmartCompany’s free daily newsletter and find our best stories on TwitterFacebookLinkedIn and Instagram.

Emma Koehn

Emma Koehn is a former senior SmartCompany journalist.