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Covid-19: Rules, Dobbing and ‘Mateship’ 


For organisations looking to communicate effectively with people right now, understanding cultural context and codes is critical.

In a nutshell

  1. Understanding cultural codes like mateship, and using them to contextualise how people are responding to COVID-19, can help brands implement more impactful comms strategies.
  2. There are different interpretations and manifestations of cultural codes like mateship - depending on the audience you’re talking to, people might react differently.
  3. The implication for brands is they need to understand the cultural context around their target audiences, and what prevalent cultural influences are relevant for them.

Over the last decade we’ve seen the rise and normalisation of more divisive political rhetoric and the issue of fake news, all amplified by the watering down of media neutrality and social media echo chambers. Add in a global health crisis, long, intense lockdowns and challenging restrictions, and what was once slow-burning embers has turned into a raging fire. Australian society is experiencing unprecedented change and fracture.  

For organisations looking to communicate effectively with people right now, understanding cultural context and the codes that are part of Australia’s national identity is critical. In this article, we’ll examine one of those codes – mateship. 

Friendship – and mateship – under pressure 

Recently, New South Wales and Victoria announced new vaccination policies that have quite literally split society. The idea of a ‘vaccinated economy’ is a fiercely contested topic right now, and people on both sides of the debate hold powerful views.  In Victoria the vaccinated economy is expected to last until 2023, and all other states, other than NSW, have yet to announce the roadmap for their vaccinated economies.

Navigating the complexity and polarisation is important not only for policymakers but also Australian businesses, who are at the coalface of how these new rules play out. In this case, a ‘head in the sand’ approach is not an option – brands must be part of the conversation and have a clear point of view, or face the risk of, at best, losing share of voice and relevance, and at worst, losing control of their brand narrative as businesses are forced to police vaccination compliance of their staff and customers.  

Different sides of the ‘mateship’ coin 

There’s plenty of research on how behavioural economics can be used to influence behaviour-change campaigns, but the aspect that isn’t considered enough is the influence of cultural context.  

There’s the social-cultural context of what’s happening now, what people are wading through every day through the media. Then there’s the more implicit cultural context, the unspoken rules that govern what’s socially appropriate and acceptable. 

One cultural code deeply embedded in the Australian national identity is mateship. It’s a big deal in Australia and always has been, with its roots in the mythology of historical nation-forging events – from being a colony of convicts left to band together to make a life in a foreign land, the story of the rebellious Kelly gang, to the sacrifices of young Australians in the world wars.  While the term ‘mateship’ has connotations of male-dominated Australian culture, women in Australia value the concept of mateship even more strongly than men.

Understanding the meaning behind cultural codes like mateship, and using them to contextualise how people are responding to COVID, can help brands implement informed strategies when navigating the minefield that is public health orders and vaccine regulation.  

Mateship in action 

Recently, former PM Tony Abbott was fined $500 for allegedly failing to wear a mask as required by public health orders. His response was, “I never thought dobbing and snitching was part of the Australian character. I think as soon as we can leave this health police state mindset behind us, the better for everyone.” That was met with some criticism, with people arguing you’re not looking after your mates if you’re putting their health and safety at risk. 

This situation highlights the nuances around cultural codes like mateship. How the code of mateship manifests depends on the social group people identify with, and what mateship means for them.  It’s an example of how in the context of different social groups the influence of mateship will be different; and in the case of COVID restrictions, even opposite. 

One manifestation of mateship in Australia is an overarching idea of egalitarianism – we're all in this together and we all should be willing to ‘take one for the team’. We value mateship and therefore we value all members of our society. It follows former PM John Curtin’s evoking of mateship in his ‘equality of sacrifice’ argument for conscription during WWII. 

Then there’s the more insular interpretation of mateship, which is very true to the roots of Australia’s history and national identity, where mateship means looking after my immediate social circle and other people ‘like me’ – but not necessarily conforming with figures of authority or broader societal expectations. 

And further, within some social groups, the idea of defending individual liberties is another strong social-cultural driver; in these groups those who do not defend their mates’ freedoms are not ‘a true mate’ or even ‘un-Australian’. It’s Abbott’s argument for not wearing a mask.

Using cultural context to influence behaviour

From a public health perspective, COVID has brought a raft of restrictions and public health orders. For these to be effective, there needs to be broad base of compliance, which in turn requires effective strategies to influence behaviour. We call these ‘push’ strategies, which will often leverage principles of behavioural economics such as identifying heuristics and cognitive biases at play to create nudges. 

A key pillar of the ‘push’ strategies we have seen in Australia has been the use of authority bias – with very credible people in relevant senior positions, such as Chief Medical Officers, delivering the message to aide compliance. For those who value the egalitarian form of mateship, and believe the intentions of our leaders is to protect the community, this approach has impact. 

However, such strategies will not have impact with all audiences. An example of an alternate approach was the ‘We’re one dickhead away from disaster. Don’t be that dickhead’ campaign from the Victorian Trades Hall Council. The campaign was designed promote safe workplace practices. It tapped into mateship in several ways: It’s fun, irreverent, colloquial, very relatable, and plays on the idea of not letting your mates down.  The language delivers the message as if from one mate to another mate. For the group this was targeting – predominately male tradies – this was in tune with their idea of mateship.    

We are already seeing businesses address their new role in vaccination policy in different ways, and mateship – along with other cultural codes – will affect what impact their approach has on their brand with the social groups in their audiences. For example, Qantas has offered a reward to Frequent Flyer members who can prove they are fully vaccinated, while some businesses are making headlines insisting they will welcome everyone, not just the vaccinated. 

Understanding culture to enhance impact 

Mateship isn’t the only relevant code, but in understanding culture, this and other ‘pull’ factors, there are opportunities for brands to have more impact and develop corresponding ‘push’ strategies’ that are going to achieve the outcomes they’re looking for.  

The implication for brands is they need to consider is what’s influencing their target audience’s point of view. This means understanding the peer group context around their target audiences, and what the prevalent cultural influences are relevant for them. That will give brands a better chance of being successful in navigating COVID – and other business challenges – with impactful strategy and communication.

If you’d like to learn more about culture and behavioural science, watch this webinar, featuring Colleen Ryan, Mark Hobart, and Lindsey Horne.  

Mark Hobart
Mark Hobart
Managing Partner, TRA Melbourne

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