The reason US Southern Style BBQ is taking off in Australia has more to do with economics than you think

In Melbourne, you can’t turn a corner without discovering some old Italian bistro or Chinese restaurant has turned into an American Rib joint.

There’s Ribs n Burgers, Le Bon TonThird Wave Cafe, Meatmother, and Big Boy BBQ. All of which are new, all of which are packed.

Image from Ribs N Burgers.

Sticky, delicious ribs aren’t the only State-side innovation taking over the menu.

There’s also Po’Boy Quarter on the Fitzroy side of Smith St, the Gumbo Kitchen food truck and the Sookie La La Diner where you can get waffles with bacon and maple syrup.

The whole city is suddenly buzzing with American cuisine – and just a few short years ago, that would have seemed like an oxymoron.

The reason is one restaurateurs almost grasp.

“Alabama-born, Dallas-raised Jeremy Sutphin, chef at Le Bon Ton, attributes it to adventure and awareness. ”I’ve been here eight years and the palates are searching for something different – and people are becoming more aware.” “

He’s right about that awareness. Australia’s knowledge of America is now a lot deeper and wider – we’ve now been to America enough that we’ve ventured beyond LA and New York.

And that has happened very recently.



Why the sudden interest? In 2008, airfares to the USA were around $2300. Ouch. Today, Virgin is offering Sydney-LA return from $1229. 

That results from a deliberate decision of the Australian government, to introduce competition into the market.

Here’s Labor Transport Minister Anthony Albanese talking about the “open skies” pact with the US in 2008.

“This agreement will be good for competition and it could … lower airfares.”

We’ll forgive him for not predicting the great barbecue explosion of 2012/13/14.

Of course, post-2009 also coincides with a much higher Aussie dollar. There were three good years there where you could buy a greenback for less than one Aussie dollar. Of course, those days are behind us.

ImageSo if travel predicts what we’ll be eating next, what’s the next big wave?

Fairfax food doyenne Larissa Dubecki is tipping Korean food to take off.  But the bibimbap futures index doesn’t look that frothy to me.

ImageMight a renaissance of Japanese cuisine be on the cards? Perhaps. But Japan’s post-Fukushima bounce back still looks modest compared to other places Australians love to fly.

There is one extremely popular destination still terribly under-represented at the fancy end of the food business. 




Indonesia’s surge is even bigger than America’s.  Looks like queueing up to pay $40 for a plate of nasi goreng cannot be far away.

Political narratives – have politicians learned anything from HBO?

Political commentators pay major lip-service to the importance of having and using a “narrative”.

The tricky knack of a political narrative (Bernard Keane)

In government, a mantra is not enough to control the narrative (Annabel Lukin)

Political Narrative (Michael Cooney)

Australian Politics: A lack of narrative (Michael Tons)

Talking about narrative goes deep into policy making circles:

“Narratives are stories, in whatever form they take – oral, written or visual. Conventional narratives in literature, the theatre or the cinema have a beginning, middle and end. Good ones provide drama, arising from a predicament that ensnares the principal character; they have plenty of action – the steps the character takes to escape the predicament – with unexpected plot twists and complications thrown in; and there is a resolution, culminating in the achievement of a visionary aspiration or objective. Economic narratives have some similarities.”

– Dr Ken Henry, former head of the Treasury, in a 2007 speech to the Curtin Policy forum. Surprised?

All this talk about narrative in politics has coincided with what many people agree is a golden age of story-telling in the ascendant medium of television (1, 2, 3, 4)

But I see no sign of politicians learning from it.

Our leaders scarcely ever admit to watching the box. They prefer to project an image of someone working tirelessly for their constituents.  Why have they spurned the chance to learn from TV?

Politicians fetishise staying on message. That – they believe – is the only way to get voters to hear the one thing you want them to hear. It is true only if you assume that people won’t be listening, and it is a catch-22.

Would you tune into a show where the main character just repeated the same lines, week-in and week-out?

What about a show where they never admitted they were wrong? Never grew as a person? Never got into trouble and squeaked back out?

Our political characters all claim to be good people from ordinary backgrounds, and play down their weirdness. It’s immensely boring.

They end up with a script that’s all issues, no characters. But (most) humans don’t care about issues in the abstract. We are drawn to characters.

In the HBO western Deadwood, the opening credits are all about a tough but fair sherriff called Bullock. But after a few episodes Bullock’s role fades and the writers turn saloon-owner Swearengen into the main focus.

Screen Shot 2014-06-04 at 2.49.40 pm
Al Swearengen (Source)

He’s a murderer, bully and brothel owner. But his motivations and relationships are complex. They make us love him in the end, and we forgive far more from him than we would from the rest.

Viewers don’t mind complexity. We can even feel for Sergeant Brody, the muslim terrorist at the centre of Homeland, because we get insight into his home life and terrible back-story.

We barrack for Walter White from Breaking Bad, who is a meth cook. We barrack for Omar in The Wire and the inmates in Orange is the New Black. All because we get to know them. We see not only their strengths but their weaknesses. We see them as humans, not message delivery machines.

Can politicians learn from this?

I’m not saying the front benches should start dealing drugs. Just that it doesn’t hurt to show a little of their real struggles. There should be plenty there. Difficult lives turn people to politics and politics is hard on humans.

A political career is a story written over the really long-term. It is not a movie. If it is to remain compelling, the main characters have to have depth. Depth means complexity and complexity requires ambiguity.

At the moment, political narratives strive to kill ambiguity. But this generates only the most superficial interaction with issues.

We might actually be a chance of engaging with university reform if we saw how Joe Hockey’s mother-in-law hates him for it, if we knew it kept him up at night, if we saw how his background and values explain why he balanced it off against other priorities.

As presented, there’s no meat to the political narratives. They are the kind of narrative you might get in a child’s story book. See Spot Run appears to have inspired See Joe Repair Budget. 

There is little to grasp on to in the Coalition’s story. Nothing to stop us from painting them as simple villains. Nothing to stop us rolling our eyes and changing the channel. Nothing to make us focus in the short run, empathise in the medium run and barrack in the long run.

Bill Shorten could learn a lot from Batman. We know more about how Batman begins than Bill begins. Why is that?

But it doesn’t just have to be about the leaders. The Avengers or Oceans Eleven may be an even better metaphor for a political party. A raggedy team with distinct flaws and skills have to fit together to get a job done. There’s alliances and fractures that keep us focused on them, and those alliances and fractures are strengths, not weaknesses, in the narrative. Political parties try to keep talk of factions down. But they can be a fascinating sub-plot.

There are some politicians that modern messaging experts can’t explain. They include Bob Katter, Clive Palmer, and Lee Rhiannon. These people understand something of how eye-catching, complex characters can take an outsize role in a narrative. But does the political world learn from them?

Politics is much like it was 20 years ago and the time is right for a change in the way it is practised. It is a cozy old duopoly using old school communications techniques that are increasingly out of favour with the youth. In TV terms, the major parties are the Simpsons and the Bold and the Beautiful. Popular once, they are now the same old thing over and over.

Who is authoring The Sopranos of politics, writing a script that looses the foundations and doesn’t care who it shocks?

Is it Clive Palmer? Or is he just some sort of free-form experiment, like a drama student let loose with a digital camera.

When will we get a real narrative made up of characters real Australians actually care about? I cannot wait for such a show to hit the air.

What would happen to Google if the return on search engine marketing was negative 63 percent? Some researchers just crunched out that exact number.

Imagine you’re doing some internet shopping. You want some shoes to replace a favourite pair that is worn out. You type in the name of the place where you got the last pair, and click the first link that comes up. You choose the exact same pair, sling the credit card, and start waiting for the postman.

The shoe retailer sees this: someone searched for their name, clicked the link they paid Google to install, and then went on to make a purchase. They add that to their return on investment for buying ads associated with their own company name.

But searching for a company name suggests you already know that company exists. And now a new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research has shown that buying the ads that sit alongside searches for your own company name is pretty stupid. 

“search advertising only works if the consumer has no idea that the company has the desired product”

This also applies for ads with both the retailer name and a product in it. Like “Myer suits” or “Kogan TV”.

Google effect is neutral
The effect of suspending paid search for branded terms like ebay shoes

The research is not some wishy-washy lab experiment. It was done by eBay Research, and involved a giant control experiment. eBay started by cancelling all the paid search advertisements for terms like “ebay shoes” in 30 per cent of America.

It then widened the experiment to non-branded searches, like “shoes”

What it found was startling:  “on average, U.S. consumers do not shop more on eBay when they are exposed to paid search ads.

The reason is this. Search engine marketing causes a big leap in traffic from people that have never used eBay before. But a vast majority of people that use eBay are experienced users. because the search engine can’t target the newbies, the return on investment ends up being very poor.

“consumers who have completed at least three eBay transactions in the year before our experiment are likely to be familiar with eBay’s offerings and value proposition, and are unaffected by the presence of paid search advertising”

effect of paid ads is very low among frequent users

So search engine marketing is still good for people who don’t regularly use your site. But here’s the rub. Among people who shop on eBay all the time (50+ purchases a year), they use paid links 4 per cent of the time. eBay pays for all those clicks and an unsophisticated measure of the effectiveness of paid advertising would therefore show that paid links are effective.

Turning off ads left eBay with 99.5 per cent of its normal sales. The differences between the period with ads and the period without are far from striking:


Obviously small companies can still get bang for their buck advertising online. But big companies perhaps less so, and that might hurt Google.

“Of the $31.7 billion that was spent in the U.S. in 2011 on internet advertising, estimates project that the top 10 spenders in this channel account for about $2.36 billion.”

The study can’t reveal eBay’s actual expenditure on Google paid search, but it uses an estimate of $51 million a year, based on google’s public statements. That delivers a return on investment of -63 per cent. 

Frightening news for Google shareholders, who in the first quarter of 2014, have seen advertising revenues fall 1 per cent.


Killing Worksafe – state government dumbness goes epic.

Worksafe is dead.

Worksafe old adForget the millions spent on building a brand that was recognised immediately across the state.

Forget the strategies that have made Victoria the clear leader among the states on cutting injuries and fatalities for years. (source)

Victoria workplace injury statistics

Worksafe was a brilliant invention. By combining the regulator of workplace safety with the insurer, the economic incentives are all aligned. The company wants to reduce injuries, keep its customers happy and get the ill and injured back to work.

It’s a revolutionary piece of policy-making (mirrored in the design of the Transport Accident Commission, which has helped bring automobile accidents down to their lowest level in history, and among the best in the world.)

A huge part of the job of Worksafe is raising awareness of dangers in workplaces.

This is why Worksafe spent big bucks using proper advertising agencies and sponsors the Western Bulldogs. We are all familiar with its very successful advertising campaigns.

Awareness is enormously important in promoting safety and Worksafe has always used free publicity too. Whenever a prosecution or fatality happened, Worksafe would put out a press release, and papers would report on it.

Worksafe could not prosecute every little business with a safety breach. Amplifying successful prosecutions creates the impression firms face legal risks if they do not focus on safety. Worksafe would also issue a press release whenever a worker was killed or seriously injured at work. This served to keep workplace safety in the news.

But then.

In late 2013, the Hon Gordon Rich-Phillips, minister in charge of Worksafe, must have spotted one of these stories in the newspaper. Was Worksafe “anti-business”? Things changed.

The honourable member is an aviation enthusiast.
The honourable member is an amateur aviation enthusiast.

Since then, Worksafe’s media strategy has transformed.

Worksafe issued 41 press releases in the first part of 2013. They did not stint on death and blood and gore, or big whopping fines.
But 2014 is extremely sanitised.
A change of tune
A change of tune

And it’s not as if there was nothing newsworthy. For example, at a factory owned by the company that makes Kettle chips and CCs, a man was dragged into a conveyor belt and lost his arm above the the elbow. That resulted in a $45,000 fine in February.

The organisation that was a world-leading innovator in public policy is no longer free to run in the best interests of workers and its own insurance scheme. It now dances to the tune of the government.

The Age wrote about the minister’s meddling in March. Advertising contracts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars have been thrown into jeopardy.

Now new ads have hit the papers with the name Worksafe nowhere to be seen.


“The important work that we do across Victoria is much broader than just safety, so using our legal name – VWA – better reflects all areas of our business” – the press release.

Changing your brand when you’ve spent so much on it will make your organisation less effective.

People are already confused about the difference between the Victorian Workcover Authority and Worksafe. (They are the same. The former is the legal name of the organisation. The latter was an effective brand designed to reinforce the idea the organisation should be more dynamic and less bureaucratic .)

Emasculating this powerful and effective brand will mean more injuries. Workers will suffer, and so will business owners who do the right thing and keep their workplaces safe. They will have to pay higher premiums to cover compensation for the injured and dead.

Worksafe’s creative communications: Spare parts vending machine. [source]
That a good strategy and a powerful brand can be eliminated on a whim of a minister speaks of an anti-intellectual approach in the Coalition party-room. The state government ought to be ashamed.