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Commercial break

Nick Bryant | 15:43 UK time, Thursday, 14 January 2010

Should you ever wish to find evidence of political incorrectness in Australia, then turn on the television and wait for the next commercial break. Ribald and mischievous, advertisers know that fun is an especially big selling point in a country that prides itself on not taking things too seriously. Some agencies have turned what's known here as larrikinism into an art form, with exceptionally high production values. It's not so much political incorrectness writ large as very carefully copy written.

There's a beer advert running at the moment, which is a classic of its kind. Lavish in its production, it follows a parade through the centre of Ballarat in Victoria, where groups of beer-lovers gather under an array of banners.

There are the "Men Who Don't Eat Quiche". The "Blokes Punching Above Their Weight", an improbable group of rather unfortunate looking men, who are accompanied by a bevy of beautiful and buxom women. There are "Blokes Built like a Brick **** House", "Salad Dogders" (the advert cuts to a rather corpulent women), "Guys who Peaked in High School" (a 30-something nerd, bespectacled and balding), "The Manscapers" (who, in the words of the commentary, are products of "tireless hours with a razor, smooth to the touch"). Further back in the parade are the "People who chucked a sickie to be here", "Cashed Up Bogans", "The Historical Re-enactors", and "Men Who've Had their Arm in a Cow".

Doubtless, it will delight some, and upset others. And who knows, were it broadcast in another country, it might even attract some flak. Here, however, sensibilities often veer towards the robust.

The question of whether some Australian advertising agencies go too far was highlighted only last week in the row over an advert promoting the Aussie arm of Kentucky Fried Chicken. It showed a lone white cricket fan, dressed in the green and gold of the national team, trying to watch a match but having his view continually obstructed by a group of West Indian fans, dancing and swaying to a calypso beat. To pacify the crowd, he pulls out a bucket of fried chicken, which proves such an enticing distraction to the West Indian supporters that they are momentarily silenced.

When it was viewed on the internet in America, the advertisement quickly became the target of an acid shower of criticism for its depiction of a derogatory racial stereotype: that black people love fried chicken, with all its evocations of the once-segregated American Deep South. KFC withdrew the offending advertisement and apologised to its customers for any "misrepresentation".

In many ways the row echoed the debate over the blackface skit broadcast last year on the Channel Nine entertainment show, Hey Hey It's Saturday, which again caused a racial stir in America. Back then, Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard happened to be visiting America and made light of the issue. "I think whatever happened was meant to be humourous and would be taken in that spirit by most Australians," she said of the skit in which a group of men "blacked up" to impersonate the Jackson Five.

Neither is it the first time that an advertisement deemed acceptable in Australia has raised eyebrows abroad. When Tourism Australia asked of potential visitors, "Where the Bloody Hell Are You?" as part of a multi-million dollar global advertising campaign, it was banned in Britain.

It's hardly as if "anything goes" when its comes to Australian advertising. Following thousands of complaints, the Advertising Standards Bureau has recently been critical of a prominent billboard campaign in the major cities offering men help with erectile dysfunction.

At the same time, however, there has been widespread praise for a road safety campaign from the New South Wales government which equates fast driving with questions - err, how shall we put it - about the dimensions of the driver's manhood.

So is it the case that Australian adverts sometimes go too far, or simply that a proudly irreverent sense of humour and playfulness sometimes gets lost in translation when broadcast abroad? Certainly, the KFC advertisement failed the international taste test.

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