Selling some low-priced t-shirts with seemingly patriotic slogans on them around the national holiday: If you are an international retail company, this sounds like a pretty safe bet on some revenue, especially when the country in question is a former part of the British Empire and still a proud member of the Commonwealth. Well, as managers of German-based discounter Aldi had to experience, things are not that easy.
Aldi offered its customers in Australia t-shirts that were meant to celebrate Australia Day on 26th January. Unfortunately one slogan in particular, “Australia est.(ablished) 1788”, did provoke a social media outcry and severe accusations of racism instead of evoking a friendly, patriotic reception.
To understand this harsh reaction one has to take a look into Australia’s history and, in particular, how the perception of this history within the Australian society has changed in recent years.
The event that the slogan hints at is the landing of Captain Arthur Philip in the bay of Sydney in 1778. The British fleet of eleven prison ships had been sent to Australia to found a penal colony. The celebration of the anniversary of this landing was initially intended to honor the achievement of the first convicts sent here, namely the creation of a viable community from the ground up.
So far, so good. The problem is that “Australia Day” was later used to stress the supremacy of the white, European settlers over the indigenous people of Australia, often called Aborigines. Australian governments in the past have interpreted Australia Day as the birthday of the Australian nation, tacitly implying that before the arrival of the Europeans there has been no considerable national or cultural community on the continent. This interpretation served the colonial narrative of the “white man’s burden” to bring the “blessings of civilization” to the underdeveloped. The same narrative was used to justify the unfair and often inhuman treatment of the indigenous people. The most shocking example surely is the drama of the “stolen generations”, the children who were taken away from their aboriginal families and placed in white foster families against their own will. This very dark chapter of Australian history only ended in the 1970s.
A lot has happened since then. The Australian society has embarked on the path of national reconciliation. In 2008 Prime Minister Rudd officially apologized for the crimes committed against Australia’s indigenous communities. The majority of Australians today see their national holiday as a celebration of the multiculturalism that is on the basis of modern Australia. Nevertheless it is still a sensitive date, as some indigenous communities still feel offended by the celebration of what they refer to as “Invasion Day”. On the other side of the political landscape right-wing extremist groups still use the date to proclaim their vision of “White Australia”.
Many Australians have associated the slogan mentioned above with these right-wingers and therefore reacted with disconcertment and protest. The notion that Australia was “established” only in 1788, implying that it did not exist before, was strongly opposed. This opposition manifested itself in a flood of negative reactions on Aldi’s social media channels. In reaction to this, the retailer quickly took the shirts off its shelves, stating it would always put its customers wishes first.
Hopefully Aldi learnt its lesson. A lesson that multinational corporations often tend to forget when entering new markets: Economic key figures such as average income and purchasing power are important, but so is basic knowledge about a country’s cultural and sociological structure.