Susan Carland: Hi, I'm Susan Carland, and welcome to What Happens Next?, the show where we look at some of the most pressing issues facing the world today.
Alex Wadelton: It's not just about the environmental impact these Lion King Ooshies were having, it’s also about the whole kids expecting to get a present every two days, and it's like, you know, we just don't need a present every two days. You just need a present on your birthday and at Christmas – if you believe in Christmas. Otherwise, just chillax.
Susan: This special episode of What Happens Next? was recorded live at Monash University, where campaigner and advertising guru Alex Wadelton spoke about how the simplest ideas for driving change can sometimes be the most effective. He's one of Australia's most highly regarded creative minds. In 2016, he was rated as one of the world's top 20 advertising writers. His advertising campaigns have run all around the world, and his charity campaigns have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. His Future Landfill campaign targeting Woolworths’ plastic Lion King OOshies promotion started with just a simple idea and a camera, and it soon went viral. In this interview, Alex shares his tips for individuals who want to help drive change. And his biggest tip? Take action.
[Event MC] And now can everyone please join me in welcoming Alex Wadelton and Dr Susan Carland for a special Monash podcast recording, “No Time to Waste”.
Susan: Thank you, Alex. Welcome.
Alex: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Susan: I imagine there's actually a few sick stomachs in the audience when they heard about someone like you that could single-handedly bring down a multimillion-dollar campaign. I imagine that's probably the worst nightmare of many of you. Before we get into talking about why you did that, could you just explain what the actual campaign was?
Alex: So basically, the idea was that Woolworths did a tie-in with Lion King; they brought out these things called Lion King Ooshies. They launched at the same time as Coles’ Little Shop 2 and they both launched in Plastic Free July, which is obviously the most ironic thing of all time. So basically one of my kids got given a couple of these issues by, like, caring grandparents, and they were, like, super-duper excited, like they were so excited, they were ripping the plastic off going, ‘Oh my God, it’s a rare one’. About three minutes later, they've lost interest, walked off playing the backyard. So I was just looking at these Lion King little plastic things, little figurines, and I was just looking at it going, isn't the meaning of The Lion King the circle of life? How does this at all in any way, shape or form gel with that? I literally just had a thought in the moment – so, what if we took these Lion King Ooshies and shot them in their natural habitat, which is not the beautiful plains of the Serengeti, it’s in landfill, because that's where they're all going to end up. So basically, that was basically the idea came from that. And then we just got to making it after that.
Susan: And so why did you choose that issue? In particular, there's so many waste issues, there’s so many social issues. Why did you fixate on that one?
Alex: I think it was because it was just so in the face and just made no sense with Lion King, made no sense in Plastic Free July; it was almost like I think we're getting to, like, a tipping point – there is so much stupid stuff going around until you go, ‘I can’t take it any more, I’ve got to do something’. So I just had an idea. I happen to know a lot of clever people who could help make it, and we could do something pretty, pretty cool pretty quickly, actually.
Susan: So you launched a website, and then what happened?
Alex: So, we launched a website. So I got my mate Tom Whitty, who used to be managing editor of The Project. You might have seen he just produced Australia Talks which is on ABC – amazing person, photographer Stu Morley, we'd worked on something previously for The Project for, actually, a Tommy Little thing. And so we just texted Tom with the idea and he said, ‘Yeah I love it, let's go’. And then we shot it at Stu's. Within a week, we basically made it all and got another mate to do the Photoshop. He did it all for free, but he couldn't put his name to it because he actually works for an agency that does work for Coles and Woolworths, ironically enough. We got a guy to build the website in a day and again he, too, couldn't put his name to it. But because I'm an independent creative director, I guess I don't have any anyone tell me not to do that any more, so I just do it.
So we did the website, and because Tom knew quite a bit of people he was able to get it onto Triple J. I did a post on LinkedIn. I mean, I don't know how often you’re on LinkedIn, but it's not exactly a hotbed of social activity and spreading of social media stuff. But that's had I think just under 50,000 views now, thousands of shares.
We actually, in the process of it, were trying to get, like, an environmental brand, because being from an advertising background we thought, do we need a logo in the corner to say it's legit, and they were all a bit scared – ‘We love this campaign, but we can't put our logo to it because we don't want to get sued’.
I took good advice from my wife, Sheridan, who's in the crowd today: ‘So maybe you should get some legal advice too!’ And the legal advice was, because it's art, it’s an individual thing, it’s not a problem because it's in satire, parody land, you should be fine. Anyway, we didn’t get sued. But so, yeah, we did that and it just went berserk. Like, actually, Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund and Sea Shepherd all shared it out to their social, which is millions of people, and there were tens of thousands of shares of it. It just went bananas and yeah, Woolworths, we reached out to Woolworths for some of their thoughts. We posted it to them on social media and stuff, and they did the typical. ‘This is our corporate reply, which is probably some 19-year-old kids going, ‘Well, we believe in the environment’, and that was actually interesting – I think they knew that there was a slight environmental concern, because they didn't have, like, a recycling programme in place. But if you read the fine print, it's for six weeks after the promotion finishes and these are supposed to be collectible, so you know you're supposed to keep onto them then. And I've actually gone to a few Woolworths just in the last few weeks, saying, ‘How’s it going, can you take my Ooshies here?’, and the blank stares I've got from everyone is like ... No one has any idea. There's no signage to say, ‘This is where you put your things’. So it's kind of like the old thing, what’s the term – greenwashing? That was a little bit greenwashing, so yeah.
So then I did a lot of interviews and it went on the front page of the Guardian website, which is really great, and then we .. actually, some people said, ‘Well it's easy to have a go at Woolworths, why don’t you think of something better?’ So we thought about it for, like, two minutes and thought, what about if they had done, like, collectible cards? There’s this technology nowadays where you can print on cards that are embedded with seeds. So imagine these Lion King collectible cards, with all the characters or the key moments in the film – still exciting, still share them. At the end of the promotion, you throw them in the garden and then actually the circle of life would continue, which seems to make a lot more sense.
And then, as I mentioned earlier, a week later, Woolworths came out with a new promotion, which was going to be seeds, which was great. I don't know if they already had it in the works or not, but they certainly seemed like they rushed it out, because the press release was very light on any details of ‘How the hell are we going to do it?’ But they did it, so it's good.
I think we all now have the power to change things because of the internet. You can make things happen, whereas 20 years ago one lone person yelling in the breeze, you can't make a difference, but the internet, you can get everyone together and everyone can feel the power of something pretty simply, and easily nowadays you can do something good.
Susan: Were you surprised at how successful it was, that so many people got behind this? I mean, the Ooshies were really popular and the Little Shop things were unbelievably popular.
Alex: I guess I was surprised. I guess you never know if things are going to go well, because you can only try enough ideas. But everyone I spoke to about the idea and the lead of it was like, ‘Oh my God, that's awesome. Let's do it, Let's do it.’ So that's a good sign, because if you go up to someone and say, ‘Do you want to do this?’ ‘I guess we could.’ That's not a good sign, but everyone was just like, yes, let's do it. We're all sick of this sort of stupid stuff. So that was really heartening, I think.
Susan: So, you’re one of the world's top 20 advertising writers. That was official, in 2016. So normally you're about creating campaigns for companies. Did it feel weird sort of going head to head with another advertising initiative?
Alex: No, I mean, because I've spent 20 years in advertising. I think my last three, four, five years in advertising agencies, I was really just getting to, ‘What am I doing with my life?’ Like, I'm flogging chips … like, I just knew there was more. That's why I feel like in advertising and marketing, there are so many super-duper clever people, but they're spending their super-amazing brains selling stuff that maybe you don't need. And I've got to a point in my career where I can freelance and get independent stuff and do stuff that's usually just, in general, good for the world. So it didn't feel strange, it just felt like that's the right thing to do. Because I’m at that age where I want to be a good example to my kids and my friends and my family, my wife, and just do good things. I think we can more easily do that than perhaps we could in the past. Or maybe I just didn't have the heart back in the day. But now I kind of realised that it's good to do leave a good mark on the world, not just to keep taking from it.
Susan: When we speak to people about making change, often the fear seems to be, ‘I don't know how. I don't know where to begin. It all seems too difficult.’ How do you get over that initial hump and just begin?
Alex: Well, I think that's a really good point. I spent the first 15 years in my career, like, winning awards and being competitive and hiding my ideas, and nowadays if I come up with an idea I just tell everybody about it, and because in the world – and my wife's a big believer in this, and I was always sceptical – but I believe in, it's the whole universe. If you put the good vibes into the world, enough other people are going to have those same good vibes and it's going to work. So you just, just start doing it. Like, you can never know; don’t wait until everything is perfect, because then nothing will ever happen – just go do it.
I mean, I'm not a super-brainiac or anything, but I just do stuff now, and it's amazing how you can just do stuff – because most people are paralysed by fear. Honestly, I don't care anymore. I just want to do stuff, and all these ideas, why don’t I just make ’em instead of just have them rattling around my head. I had to get them out of my head, stop the voices at night, and just get on with it and do it. And like I said, you can do it with the internet nowadays. Like, what was interesting is, how much did Coles and Woolworths spend on their campaigns – it would have been millions of dollars. We spent zero dollars. Literally nothing. Everyone just did it as a favour because they were like, this is a great idea, let's just do it. And we did it. It was amazing how quickly you can actually effect change. Because I’ve come to the conclusion, that, well, if you've got a good idea, if you think it's good, then there's probably even one per cent of the population – that’s still 250,000 people in Australia; that's heaps of people.
Like, you just need to do things. You can't – that’s the whole thing – you can't please everybody, so just please yourself. And that will probably please other people because you're not unique in the world; there’s lots of people who probably have similar feelings to you, so just go do it.
Susan: You mentioned when you were doing the Future Landfill campaign that a lot of people were fearful about being involved, and I wanted to ask you how, what advice would you give to people who maybe do want to be involved in positive social change in some way, but there is that element of fear for them?
Alex: Well, I think that's the thing. If you're doing it for yourself, it feels like it's OK because you’re just doing a commentary, you're not trying to flog something or sell your own thing – it’s just for you, standing up, and I think companies look really, really bad if they have a go at an individual Aussie man or woman or whoever, just standing up and saying, ‘I believe in this’. I think you’re kind of in safe territory because you're just doing, just having an opinion, you're allowed to have an opinion. As soon as it’s, as I said, as soon as it’s tied to money, everything becomes muddied. But if it's pure and it's your idea and you believe in it, I think it's all totally fine. Because I always had that feeling – I had lots of ideas, but what if I pitched to this couple and they steal it? And then I’m like, no, you just just go do it and everything will be alright. I think, in general, everything will be fine – but don't take that as legal advice!
Susan: Unless you get sued! [Laughter]. So, can you give us, just to wrap up, a couple of really practical tips for, you know, the people at home, the people here, people who want to create social change – what are some really concrete things they could be doing? Maybe they don't even know where to start?
Alex: I think it's always, keep it simple, try and say one thing. Because a few people, because we did the Future Landfill, people were like, ‘Well, don't you have to go a Little Shop as well?’ Well, it's like, a terrible analogy, but with a gun, if you've got two targets, you’re probably going to miss both; if you’ve got one, you're going to hit one. So I always think, keep it really simple and single-minded. And just try and find people who are into the same stuff as you and you trust. As long as there's trust you can make awesome things happen. As soon as you're going, ‘I'm not sure about this person’, that's probably not right. You just need to do something that you all believe in, because there'll be other people who believe, who are in the same mindset as you. So just go and do it. Nike is right. Just do it.
Susan: Actually I’ve got one last question. You're an advertising person, everyone here's in marketing, communications, advertising. How do you think those areas, those fields – advertising, marketing, communication – how can they be better harnessed to create a better world for everyone?
Alex: Well, I think … they've got a platform, which is good, because most people don't have a platform. You can make a platform for yourself, but if you've got a platform, you can make change from within. I think that's the best way to do it, because otherwise money, again, overrides everything. If you have the heart in the right place, you can affect other people's feelings and opinions, and people will want to be inclusive. That's what I think is interesting. I think that word ‘inclusive’ is important, because I've been comparing it to, you know, Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion; like, the climate strike was so amazing because it was an arm around the shoulder, everyone, middle Australia, all doing it together. But then, when it goes to the extremist thing it almost undoes some of the work, like some of the, like, glueing yourself to things, it just pisses people off. It kind of diverts from the real issue, so I think you need to do it in a way that's inclusive, that feels like it's every Australian, every person.
Susan: It brings people with you.
Alex: It's inclusive. It's not divisive, because as soon as you’re like this, against people, people go, ‘Nope, screw you’ – even if you're saying things they believe in, you’re doing in a way that's aggressive. I think if you do it in an inclusive, friendly manner, I think that's definitely the best way to get things to change.
Susan: Alex Wadelton, thank you so much. Please thank Alex.
Susan: I loved that chat with Alex live on stage, but I wanted to know what it was about these promotions that makes them so enticing to supermarkets and to shoppers, and particularly the little kids. So I had a chat with psychologist and marketing expert Fiona Newton from the Monash Business School about what's behind these campaigns and how research is helping to change it.
Fiona Newton: Hi, I'm Associate Professor Fiona Newton from the Department of Marketing at Monash University, and my research interests are really around bringing about behavioural change or attitude change for social good.
Susan: Fiona, tell us about the drivers behind why supermarkets seemed so committed to these sort of promotions.
Fiona: Woolworths, Coles, they’re facing a lot of competition from new players, and they’re trying to get market share from each other. So let's think about it. If I introduce a promotion like the Little Shop or the Ooshies, I'm going to get a lot of excitement. It might be because of the nag factor from children that what you're going to actually see is that the parents will then think, ‘I will go to Coles and I will participate, and the more I spend there, the more I can bring home another one of the Little Shop little miniatures. Another family might kind of say, ‘Look, loved The Lion King. My kids are besotted with The Lion King – I’m now going to start shopping at Woolworths for that promotion so that I can then collect them.’ Parents want their kids to be happy. The kids are fixated with these types of things, and the supermarkets know this.
So, for them, these promotions are a great way to get people in the door and to build up a habit, because these things go across six weeks, eight weeks. What they're hoping in that time is that you’ll begin to like that supermarket and that you'll spend a little bit more there.
Susan: So I'm clearly not part of the key demographic, because I just look at these things, these little plastic toys, and think, ‘I cannot see what the appeal is.’ Why do kids love them so much?
Fiona: Again, that’s complex, and it depends on the type of promotion. Let's go with the Ooshies. First of all, Ooshies are those little pencil tops that are really popular, and kids love to have them at school. And so what you've got there is that it's something they already want. And then you introduce The Lion King, and that promotion was done at the release of The Lion King movie. So there was all the hype and excitement around the movie, and then Woolworths says, ‘Hey, we’ve got these cute little things, and we know you like putting things on top of your pencils’ – even though they're probably, like, a choke hazard, but forget that – ‘we know that you like doing them, and we've got them in all these different characters, and we’ve even got some that are this beautiful blue that's really different, and we've got some sort of gold that are extra-special. And now we've got a competition, so you never know what you're going to get, and it might be just that special one that you want.’ And kids can’t resist that.
But kids are loved by aunts, uncles, Mummy, Daddy, grandparents, and so all of them buy into it, because they want the little ones to have it. And you get excitement, you get home and you're opening them up, and it's like a little Kinder Surprise – you just don't know what you're getting. And then there's that fun around swapping them. And at school that’s huge – in fact, some schools have had to ban it. But then it goes online, through social media. There are swap meetings, for all of these, through Facebook. Some people even pay money for them.
Susan: Yes, I've heard that they could go for up to $10,000, which astounds me. And there is so much about the human psyche we could dive into about that! With the Ooshies, suddenly there seemed to be a bit of a backlash, and there was that really viral campaign against the Ooshies and showing them, this is what they look like in their natural habitat – i.e., in the rubbish. And that went viral, and I wondered if that seemed to make a difference. Not long after that, I think it was Woolworths that released their plant promotion. I thought, ‘Oh, this could be the sign of something different.’ And yet I see, you know, just the beginning of this month, right in time for Christmas, Woolworths has released a new line of Ooshies to go in an advent calendar. So why would they do that? Given how big the backlash against this plastic that the latest plastic craze was?
Fiona: Short memories. I think what they've done this time – I agree with you that Woolworths made a concerted effort in their discovery gardens. And that was all about them being a fresh food producer. I mean, a retailer, and they really wanted to start a conversation around, how does food grow and what are some of the issues around that? And they wanted that conversation to be with families, and even in the workplace that was part of their PR release. So that's their blurb that they've actually come out with. But then, think about it. They've got a concerted segment of the market that loved the Ooshies – loved them. And think about a retailer – they've got lots of different segments. So they had this segment that said, ‘We hate these. This is unenvironmental’, and as you talked about, let's show the Ooshies in their natural environment, which is in a whale’s tummy or whatever. But on the other side of that, you've got people that got a lot of joy out of it, and I think what Woolworths has done, it's a bit strange, but I think that they've actually kind of thought, ‘This time we're not going to give it away for free, you're going to have to buy it.’ So it's It's now very much that collector, so I think they would maybe be seeing this as it's not going to therefore end up being thrown away on the street or ending up in a lake or on the beach. It's going to be kept. Whether that's true or not, I don't know. I don't know that it will gain the same level of popularity and traction, because you've taken out the competition bit. What they’ve done now is, you don't get it for free. You pay $40 – I think it's $40 – and you get the whole set of 24.
Susan: Right, so it’s not just the competition. Also, the surprise element is gone – like you said, you don’t know what you've got until you ... you know what? We used to open our footy cards, those kinds of things from when we were young, to find out what you've got. So that's taken away as well, which I imagine was a big part of the excitement for the kids?
Fiona: Correct. So I think now their argument might be, ‘We're not going for the mass market. We're going just for this small promotion for those that are really into this’, and I think they actually see it as a bit of a stocking-filler. What concerns me is not just the little ones in the advent calendar, but they've brought out these larger, plush kind of toy kind of one, and you wonder how long – and again is for a stocking-filler, would be my guess – and I'm not really certain how environmental they are either. So in the trade press there has been a few questions raised this week as to the strategy that Woolworths is using, but I think they think they're going to make some money out of this, and it's not a collectible kind of being for the masses where people might be getting it and then just throwing it straight away. That’s my take.
Susan: Is there anything that your research has revealed that could show how a supermarket can still achieve their commercial objectives – i.e., bringing in more customers and more money – while keeping the environmental concerns of at least a segment of their consumer base placated?
Fiona: I think the research literature is starting to come up with some really good examples of where industry is working with academics to think about more sustainable options that still are appealing. So let's think, for example, what we know is that we've got very complex issues that supermarkets are now wanting to start to address. We've had Woolworths definitively saying we want more healthy eating. We had Coles with their stickies trying to do the same thing. What would be really exciting is if they started to get together with social marketers – and social marketers are those that use commercial marketing tools for social good – and to start to try lab-based research and then going out into the market for other types of things that are still enticing and to bring people into the shop, but are not gimmicks, that are more long-lasting. And that could be much more around stories, narratives, things that would be engaging young people in healthy eating in a fun, maybe comic-book kind of way. I think that there's room for excitement in that area, and there's a lot of potential. There may even be ways that they can still do these kinds of collectibles, but using ingredients, for want of a better word, that are more easily recyclable. I think that there's enough academic research out there now on recyclable plastics. That is totally possible.
Susan: Fiona, thank you so much for your time. That was really, really useful information.
Fiona: Thanks so much for having me.
Susan: Fascinating insights there from Fiona, and great tips from Alex Wadelton. Thanks to both our guests today. And thanks to you for listening. I'll see you on the next episode of What Happens Next?
This special episode of What Happens Next? was recorded live at Monash University, where campaigner and advertising guru Alex Wadelton spoke to staff about how the simplest ideas for driving change can sometimes be the most effective – his "Future Landfill" campaign targeting Woolworths’ plastic Lion King Ooshies promotion started with a simple idea and a camera.
In this interview, Alex shares his tips for those who want to help drive change. (His best advice? Take action!)
"You just need to do something that you all believe in, because there'll be other people who believe, who are in the same mindset as you. So just go and do it."
We're also joined by Fiona Newton, Associate Professor of Marketing in Monash's Faculty of Business and Economics. Fiona's research focuses on influencing behaviour, and the drivers behind consumer decision-making. She outlines how consumers are demanding higher sustainability standards, resulting in a backlash against some of the of "plastic pollution" promos.
So, if organisations continue to strive for differentiation, but also promote sustainability, they need to develop promotions that support their commercial objectives while meeting community expectations regarding environment protections. This is where academic research comes in – working with them, and providing guidance and evidence.