Furore over horse race advertising on Sydney Opera House

The Everest Cup is set to be promoted on the building's iconic sails today, amid fury from the Australian public and talks of protests, extra security and sabotage.

An early artistic impression of the Everest Cup branding. The final creative has not been released
An early artistic impression of the Everest Cup branding. The final creative has not been released

Organisers of Sydney horse race the Everest Cup continue to face a huge backlash from prominent Australians and the public over the New South Wales government’s decision to allow Racing New South Wales to promote the A$13m (£7m) race on the Sydney Opera House.

The incident has dominated news and social media channels over the past few days, after the Opera House management rejected the proposal for being inappropriately commercial, only for the NSW government to overrule it, claiming that the race is also a massive tourism event.  

The concrete sails of the World Heritage-listed building have been used for promotional activity before, but to back cultural or social causes rather than for corporate branding. The issue has divided politicians, with Australian prime minister Scott Morrison calling the idea "a no-brainer", while Sydney’s lord mayor Clover Moore said she was "appalled" at the "blatant commercialisation".  

Fervour around the issue grew further after prominent conservative radio DJ Alan Jones berated Opera House chief executive Louise Herron for blocking the proposal, shouting at her on air and calling for her to be sacked. He has since apologised.

Australian comedy group The Chaser featured its own spoof ‘ad’ on the Opera House mocking Jones, which has sparked further debate around the controversy.

NSW premiere Gladys Berejiklian has insisted the branding will "much more toned down" than people expect – the creative itself is yet to be revealed­ – and that it will only be live for six minutes on the Opera House. But that hasn’t stopped a petition of more than 230,000 signatures against the plan.

Local news outlets claim extra security will surround the building following reports of protests against the advertising. Racing NSW has also suspended betting on the Everest Cup race "to circumvent any security risks that may exist". Some reports even claim staff at the Opera House may sabotage the advertising by turning off the power.

Despite all the negative publicity around the incident, the Everest Cup is being talked about like never before. James Wright, group chief executive of Red Agency Group, said while he personally disagreed with using cultural icons as commercial branding space, it was certainly an innovative use of media.

"Yes the Sydney Opera House has been lit beautifully for celebrations and cultural festivals, but commercial advertising for a horse race sets a new type of precedent, even if it can be argued it is also a tourism event," he told Campaign. "What’s next is a fair question to propose – fast-food businesses, clothing brands, banks?

"It will be interesting to see what actually goes up considering the controversy, and how many times the creative has been changed this past few days. But regardless of what happens, this debate has only left one party rubbing their hands with glee from the acres of free air time this issue has received: Racing NSW."

That the Opera House is such an iconic landmark means this issue "invokes a great deal of emotion for Sydneysiders," said Toby Hemming, managing partner at Bold Media.  

"It taps into a global conversation around the hierarchy of power and influence, particularly within the media establishment and its influence upon an elected government," he added.

A version of this story was first published by Campaign Asia-Pacific

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