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‘Shrimp on the Barbie’: Where did the cliche come from?

By: Amy Greenburg

“Shrimp on the barbie” is a pop culture reference made famous by the 1984 television commercial starring Paul Hogan of Crocodile Dundee. Developed by the Australian Tourism Commission, the ad was created as part of the “Come and Say G’Day” campaign to promote Australia as a must-see destination for Americans.

It doesn't get more Australian than this photo 

Even 20 years later, the often-quoted expression can be heard echoed over grills across America – the actual line spoken by Hogan is “I’ll slip an extra shrimp on the barbie for you.” And who can blame the Yanks, really? It was, after all, one of the most popular ad campaigns of all time, even making it into the Smithsonian Institution’s collection of major cultural influences of the 1980s in the US. In fact, before the campaign was launched, Australia was as low as number 78 on Americans’ dream destinations list. At that time, the only ads in America featuring Australia were by Qantas, and the land of Oz was still seen simply as a far-off place filled with kangaroos and koalas. Within just a few months of the commercial’s first airing, however, Australia shot up to number seven, and later to the number one spot, and American tourists doubled over the next three years.

Australians, however, were not as amused by the ad as their overseas counterparts. Utter the phrase to an Aussie, and you’ll surely get an eye-roll – it’s become a cringe-worthy cliché for those guys, not to mention a subject of dispute. While Americans use the word “shrimp” to describe the crustacean, Australians refer to the same-sized shellfish as a “prawn” – a difference that sparked debate among the campaign’s creative teams. However, it was the US-based team that ultimately won, and went on to use the American-friendly term to lure in its target audience.

So why did the ad resonate with Americans? Perhaps because it went beyond Australia’s already well-known features – the Outback, the wildlife and the Great Barrier Reef. Or maybe it was the cheeky humour, the friendliness and the exotic accent, inviting potential visitors to experience Australia’s laid-back, sunny lifestyle. For whatever reason, it worked – and the coined expression has become a cliché at many a barbecue since – or should we say “barbie”?