On Line Opinion

By Will Turner

Predictably, some are outraged with the Federal and New South Wales Governments for contributing $3 million to the cost of Oprah Winfrey and her 400-strong entourage travelling to our shores.

Though there is little doubt there was a carefully negotiated business deal with Oprah's Harpo Productions, there is nothing shady about our governments' conduct. What the naysayers fail to see is a sound investment with surer returns for our tourism sector and wider economy than any $3 million advertising campaign could hope to achieve.

Love her or hate her, Oprah's visit Down Under will be a boon for our economy. It is a truism of marketing that personal recommendations are worth far more than paid advertisements. Oprah has the necessarily intimate relationship with millions of women (and men) for her words to work almost as command. She is your best friend on the box willing to sit on the couch, share her history, hardships and listen to yours in return.

Many will say that the fuss and hype over Oprah's Aussie tour is the product of a media obsessed with celebrity and the trivial. What's more, they will add, as Oprah's pre-visit TV special demonstrated, her attention on Australia is going to reinforce the Crocodile Dundee "put another shrimp on the barbie" self portrait that makes most of us cringe if not angry.

Does it really matter, though, if it is a dumbed-down picture of our country that delivers massive tourist dollars? Would we prefer that people had no particular vision of Australia and took their business elsewhere?

We live in a post-9/11 world where many Americans want to feel safe and at ease when they travel. The familiar is comfortable. All the more reason to parade our Hollywood stars next week at the "Oprah House" and light a big "O" on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Even if the overwhelming majority of Winfrey's 40-million-strong American audience are choosing to holiday at home because of the recession, Oprah can be found on a television set literally anywhere on planet that hasn't outlawed her program.

However, there are limits to what our landmark people and places can do for us. Two very recent public events have highlighted this for us.

The first is Australia's failed bid for the 2022 football World Cup. The video used in Australia's final pitch to FIFA executives featured a cartoon kangaroo taking a virtual tour of Australia's best known landmarks and personalities. Yawn. Better luck in 2030 perhaps?

The second event was a segment for Oprah's pre-trip program presented by Network Ten's 7pm Project host Carrie Bickmore . The excerpt was designed to be a crash course in Aussie culture, discussing Australian slang and features of our lifestyle. The piece was unremarkable but for the following description by Bickmore:

"While you [Americans] have your diners, we have these special cafes where guys come for business meetings, girls come for a catch-up over coffee. It's all just a little bit fancy. In Australia, McDonald's are called Maccas. They're hip hangouts where people sip gourmet coffees in the McCafes and dine from a menu exclusive to Australia."

The web was immediately rife with slurs against Bickmore for being a 'sell-out'. When quizzed, McDonalds confirmed the mention of the fast-food chain was indeed a pre-prepared product promotion. Only no-one told the audience about it. Another own-goal to Australia's street cred.

Yet we may just find that the world discovers a more nuanced vision of Australia from the current Harpo hoopla. This is because we are now in a social media world where information on our country is far more accessible than in previous times when the only picture Americans and the wider world received about our country was from box office hits and mass advertising campaigns.

People are now far more likely to stumble upon the more earthy realities of our country from the fragmented nature of the web, the blogosphere, and friend-of-a-friend connections on social networking sites. Such connections increase the likelihood people will come and discover the place for themselves, and not just the typical tourist hotspots.

Returning then to personal recommendations. People's decision-making is never as rational as we make it out to be. Emotions usually matter far more in choices than diligent research and a weighing-up of options. This is good news for Australia, because we are an expensive place to visit and a long way for anyone to come. But come they will, because Oprah is in town and girlfriend: you gotta see this for yo'self.

Will Turner is a media officer at the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.