South Australia’s Commercials: Like Them or Not, You Can’t Argue with the Results

South Australia’s trilogy of “touchy-feely” television ads have drawn both rave reviews in the industry and harsh criticism from the opposition, but it’s hard to challenge their effectiveness. Not only did the most controversial ad in the trio bring home the Grand Prix at Cannes, but initial results show tourism operators and migration agent offices have nothing to complain about either. Bookings at the first two destinations featured in the ads have reached the highest levels in a decade. (The third ad was released too recently to judge its effectiveness yet.)

Why, then, the controversy?

Without a single “traditional” shot of hotels, nightlife, beaches, or glittering tourist attractions, director Jeff Darling’s take on South Australia is well outside what we expect from a tourism commercial. Indeed, the second ad in the series – for the Barossa Valley – shows a clear dark side.

After slightly washed-out shots of hands passing over gnarled wood, rich rural feasts, and the details of life in the countryside, Darling’s imagery follows the mood of the Bad Seeds’ Red Right Hand track he uses as a soundtrack. Now we see the night, the man holding dead rabbits, the girl soiling her white dress idly in the dirt, the fire and flames, and the rain turning dirt into mud.

That’s not exactly what you’d expect from the traditionally ever-sunny field of tourism advertising.

To director Darling, that’s exactly the point. Seeking to “open up the language” and convey the “frontier sense” he picked up spending time in the Barossa Valley, Darling wasn’t afraid of showing all sides. “Yeah, it is a bit dark but it poses the challenge that there is something there and are you brave enough to experience it,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald.

Darling’s willingness to challenge his audience struck a chord. Barossa’s tourism operators have reported the best bookings in over a decade. The Barossa Visitor Information Centre has seen its busiest July and August ever. Preliminary research even indicates that of target audience members who saw the ad, 45% were more likely to consider visiting Barossa after seeing the spot.

This begs the question, what are the critics missing?

David Ridgway, the South Australian opposition tourism spokesman, called the latest ad (for Adelaide) a waste of taxpayer funds – a measure aimed at helping the State Government at the upcoming polls, rather than helping bring tourism to Adelaide.

The comments section of news stories covering Darling’s work are also magnets for criticism, with some claiming they “cringe” every time the ads are shown in the cinema.

To understand the ads, it’s best to watch them. Particularly seen through the lens of a prospective tourist, Darling’s use of Eisenstein montage theory creates an entirely different impression in the viewer from traditional commercials. There’s no pitch, just emotions – and understanding.

To watch Darling’s commercials for South Australia is to understand the destinations on an emotional level, to understand what the places stand for – to feel, if only for a minute, what you might feel if you paid them a visit.

Since few of us choose our travel destinations for any reason besides experiencing the emotions of rural life or a hip city or a warm beach or any other place, the power of Darling’s ads starts to become clear. At the end of the day we don’t care about the logs or the bars or the sand. We care about how those things make us feel.

Rather than telling us facts and figures about what the destinations have to offer, like in ordinary advertising, Darling’s ads for South Australia devote their entire time to giving us the information we’re really after when making a decision to travel.

Eugene Liu works with Move Migration, a team of migration agents in Sydney known for their simple fee structure and exceptional service standard in facilitating applications for Australian permanent residency.

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