In Sydney Harbour… the yachts will be racing on the crushed diamond water under a sky the texture of powered sapphires. It would be churlish not to concede that the same abundance of natural blessings which gave us the energy to leave has energy right to call us back. (Clive James, Unreliable Memoirs, 1980)
I like to think I am a pretty outgoing person with the kind of repertoire of ‘banter’, comebacks and stock jokes that act as social currency in the UK. Yet, there is nothing like receiving a surf lesson from a strapping, suntanned Australian bloke to make one feel utterly useless. An uptight, London office worker with no balance who’s afraid of a ‘tiny’ wave, this stock humour is reduced to smiling, nodding and trying not to get too much salt water up my offended nose. Mike, our surf instructor has clearly spent his whole life outdoors and, judging by the puffing of chests and macho gamesmanship from the French 20 somethings in our group, I am not the only one he makes feel inadequate.
After Melbourne’s laid back cool and small town feel, Sydney is a real contrast. At Circular Quay, you’re greeted by the Sydney Opera House on one side and the Harbour Bridge on the other. The city’s two most famous icons ostentatiously displayed, so confident in itself it’s getting the clichés over with before you even start exploring.
Melbourne cultural ‘signals’ are taken from hipster foodiness, vintage fashion and cycling. Restaurants in hipster Fitzroy and Collingwood advertise organic and vegetarian food, locally sourced and prepared with pride. Fancy bicycles abound and you can even hire Boris Bike style steeds from stations around the city. Yet venture outside of these areas and there is a definite sense of a bubble, of a ‘them and us’. Head down Brunswick Street in Fitzroy and you’ll find local groups campaigning for investment in a new toll road to be diverted to improve the train system. In working class St Kilda, they’re objecting to plans to remove car parks and pedestrianise the high street, therby improving the tram service. This ‘hipsterisation’ has been the recent cause of protests in Berlin, and bad feeling in Hackney. Green living often gets lumped into this lifestyle with communications used to present a premium and identify tribes within groups of people. However, by getting too sucked into signaling of certain lifestyle choices, it can never appeal to the mainstream and ultimately politicises or stigmatises important issues and choices. In a country led by the recently re-elected arch conservative Tony Abbott, it’s a dangerous game to play. When OgilvyEarth conducted their Mainstream Green research in the UK, they found that 75% of the population thought that green was for crunchy hippies or rich elitist snobs, I wonder what the numbers would look like here.
I also wonder what Mike, the Australian surf instructor would think of it.
Sydney represents a different type of cool and a different communication style. Despite the beach bum image, it feels like much more of a big city. Fashion is sharper yet more mainstream (think skyscraper heels and bodycon), the population more cosmopolitan and the vibe closer to what I had expected from Australia. Cycle lanes exist, but only the bravest dare use them. To be honest, I see very little in terms of sustainability comms at all: bar some amazing pop up ‘barber’ shops for Movember and heavy handed information and public service announcement. The local movement is strong here and I do see one charming example of guerilla gardening. Mainstream comms overall are witty, straightforward and sharp, with a focus on making the viewer feel smart, practical and insightful (cutting through the bullshit).
Which brings me back to some kind of conclusion. In a country where ‘common sense’, pragmatism and straightforwardness are prized so highly, it strikes me that the hipster aesthetic can’t appeal to the mainstream. There needs to be more than one story, including a ‘macho’ version of sustainability. Again, when OgilvyEarth surveyed people in the UK, they found that only 18% of people thought that sustainability was a masculine issue and I can’t imagine it would be too different here. From Yvon Chouinard’s version of a man battling the elements, to an innovation take for the slick urbanite, to labeling for the urbanite poser, to sourcing stories for the purist coffee lover, there need to be multiple stories that go beyond vintage clothes and organic food to engage everyone.