Catholic activism and the AussieMite affair

Catholic activism and the AussieMite affair

Damian Wyld

To quote the legendary Bill Donohue, of the US-based Catholic League, "You stuck your middle finger up at the Catholic Church and we just broke it, pal!"

Such was the public retort Donohue made in 2007 to an "artist" (the term is used quite liberally) who decided to sculpt a life-sized Chocolate corpus (titled Sweet Jesus) and exhibit it in a hotel lobby – just in time for Holy Week, of course. And, of course, the aforementioned "artist" disputed any suggestion that he was anti-Catholic or sought publicity from controversy.

Fast-forward to Australia 2013 – and to similar denials from local food manufacturer AussieMite. Billing themselves as a healthy, locally made competitor to the (sadly) foreign-owned Vegemite, this company should have all the advertising points they need. But for some strange reason, the company contracted the ironically named agency, Grown Ups, to produce a video mocking the Blessed Sacrament.

Launched on YouTube at the end of May, the short clip features a communion queue (receiving on the tongue – aren't secularists' perceptions amusing?) standing before three bishops, no less. As the communicants file through, we see a woman approach, pull out a jar of AussieMite, and dip the host in before consuming it. The celebrant looks a tad put off until the woman offers him the jar for a dip too.

With everybody satisfied, the slogan rolls onto the screen: "Aussie-Mite ... It's Sacralicious."

If the obvious attempt to court controversy were not already plainly apparent, the creator of the ad, Mick Hunter, told the media he was hoping it would cause a stir to "go a bit viral".

"We're trying to track down George Pell's email and send it to him so he can blow it out of proportion," said Hunter. "It's probably a bit sacrilegious to the faithful, but they are dwindling in popularity as we speak."

The plan worked, though not as envisaged. The only place the ad went "viral" was among Catholics active on social media (mainly Facebook and, to a lesser extent, Twitter). As the ad was forwarded around online networks, parishes and groups, the simmering anger was matched by a plan of response.

Distributors of AussieMite, such as Coles and Woolworths, were inundated with emails and phone calls asking them to reconsider stocking the product.

One enterprising young Catholic set up a Facebook group, "Goodbye AussieMite", which reached an astonishing 800 or 900 "likes" in its first day. While it served as a rallying point, even its numbers cannot accurately fathom the surge of Catholics online.

As a user of social media – and a campaigner within the pro-family movement – I have never witnessed anything like it: a completely spontaneous, decentralised campaign with such speed and numbers. Clearly it points to a simple fact: Catholics, particularly the younger generations, are sick of the constant attacks and denigration of their faith.

Ironically, they are discovering that the place where they so often encounter this stiflingly secular atmosphere – namely the internet and social media – affords them the means to make their own case. And in this instance, they did.

The official AussieMite Facebook page (which had been running for some time with a paltry 200-odd "likes") was utterly overrun by Catholics. Some simply expressed their disgust. Others tried, in vain, to explain to AussieMite just why it was that they were so upset. A few wags started posting up old black-and-white clips of the "happy little Vegemite" jingle.

AussieMite's response to all this was bizarre. At first, director Elise Ramsey, who claimed to be Catholic, said that the company's ad was "funny" and was designed to "shake things up." "It's not meant to be a strike against the Catholic Church," she said.

Ramsey and Hunter must have forgotten to swap media talking points.

These odd comments were followed up by a new Facebook post by AussieMite. A link to a media story on Cardinal Pell fronting the Victorian abuse inquiry was posted online, accompanied by some words from AussieMite: "Our heart goes out to the innocent victims of sexual abuse. No amount of money can compensate for the damage down (sic) to these fellow Australians."

For a company which had demonstrated no prior public interest in the matter, it was a case of rubbing salt in the wound: offend Catholics and, when they complain, throw sexual abuse cases in their face. For a company seeking to boost its profile and public relations, it could not have done worse if it had tried.

Plan backfired

When it was evident, after a few days, that their plan had backfired, AussieMite made some half-hearted attempts to engage complainants. Still shots of the advertisement were removed from the Facebook page (although the video itself remained on YouTube) and staff started to plead and post half-hearted apologies "for any offence caused".

Perhaps they thought it was an attempt at better humour, but the Facebook page subsequently featured a jar of AussieMite in a confessional saying "sorry" through the grill to a priest. On its own, one would hardly give it a second thought, but the PR genius who decided the best way to move on from attacking one sacrament was to make light of another sacrament should probably find a new line of work.

The whole saga, which lasted only a matter of days, received minimal media coverage – such that most people were completely unaware of it. In that brief space, however, some Australian Catholics rediscovered the fact that they are capable of having an impact – and that the cheek need not always be turned.

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