Latest MLA lamb-basting

It’s almost a tradition that Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) lamb ads will spark controversy – with a liberal sprinkling of humour. From the politically-incorrect-take-no-prisoners Sam Kekovich monologues, to vegan-attacking commandos and slyly stoking the Australia/Invasion Day arguments, MLA lamb ads have grabbed lots of attention.

So like clockwork, the latest lamb ad featuring Jesus, Moses, Aphrodite, Buddha, Ganesha, Zeus, Obi Wan Kenobi and Ron Hubbard at a barbeque hosted by an atheist. An advert for lamb featuring representations of gods and prophets from all major faiths? What could possibly go wrong?

The Hindu community has been enraged by the portrayal of vegetarian deity Ganesha eating lamb. There have even been media reports in the Indian media and threats of boycott. Rajan Zed, President of the Universal Society of Hinduism said it was “highly irresponsible” for MLA to continue airing the ad “despite the clear expression by Hindus that it was very inappropriate and hurt their feelings.” The Indian Government lodged an official diplomatic complaint via the High Commission of India to the department of foreign affairs and trade, the department of communication and arts, and the department of agriculture over the offensive ad.

MLA’s new spring campaign was quickly referred to the Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB) over “its lack of sensitivity in portraying divinities and religious leaders.” However, the ASB dismissed complaints saying it does not discriminate against or vilify a person or section of the community on the basis of their religion. The ASB said while many Hindus are vegetarian, vegetarianism is not a requirement of this faith. It said the depiction of Lord Ganesh is “simply symbolic of the Hindu faith and his inclusion is part of the message of an inclusive multi-faith meal”.

MLA welcomed the ASB decision, saying this ad, like it’s other “You Never Lamb Alone” campaigns, seeks to promote the value of diversity, unity and inclusivity. “There was never an intention to offend, rather we wanted to ensure that we were as inclusive as possible. To this end, those religions that don’t typically eat red meat are not shown consuming Lamb in the advertisement, but are still invited to the table.”

While that might be the underlying message, there is no doubt that MLA ads, which are regularly referred to the ASB intentionally push the boundaries. As a farmer levy-funded organisation, MLA has a limited TV advertising budget but has been clever in creating adverts that are humorous and highly shareable, ending up in lots of social media feeds in Australia and around the world. Add some controversy and MLA once again achieves widespread media coverage that generally features the ad, the critics and the MLA’s response – or in the case of SBS this comedy skit. It’s a strategy that greatly amplifies the investment and the message about lamb.

Is the advertising strategy working? The ads are definitely memorable – the current ad has over 1 million views on You Tube. But are these campaigns paying off for stakeholders – levy-paying lamb producers? Red meat consumption is under siege in most developed countries, but in Australia, lamb has held firm at 9.5kgs per head for the past five years, despite recent high prices. The latest ad claims to promote inclusivity as well as meat, does it matter if some religious vegetarians don’t like it?