Last night, outspoken entrepreneur Ruslan Kogan dropped by the ABC's flagship panel program, Q&A, to participate in a panel about politics with some of the nation's most serious political guns. Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop, Cabinet Minister Bill Shorten, Greens Leader Christine Milne and prominent candidate and comedian Tim Ferguson were all there to join Ruslan, and we had been expecting fireworks like we had last time the man appeared on the program. Instead, we got a soft, by-the-numbers quote or two from Ruslan that spoke volumes about why he was really there.
If you didn't tune into the program last night, all you need to know is that whenever Ruslan was asked to comment on the panel by host Tony Jones, he responded with some variation of "Look, I don't have any media training to understand what these crazy politicians are talking about here", followed by a vague answer about something or other.
To understand what we saw last night, we need to go back one of Ruslan's first appearances on the Q&A program way back in June 2011. It was a Generation Y-focussed panel featuring Kogan, human rights advocate Samah Hadid, comedian Josh Thomas, music journalist Faustina 'Fuzzy' Agolley, and James Paterson of the Institute of Public Affairs. All in all it was a very entertaining panel, mostly because Ruslan acted like his usual outspoken self and dropped his outspoken views all over the panel.
On whether he liked PM Julia Gillard or Opposition Leader Tony Abbott:
ONY JONES: Let's hear from Ruslan. The question was: which party do you think best represents Gen-Y?
RUSLAN KOGAN: To me it's a bit of a question of would you rather get stabbed or shot.
FUZZY AGOLLEY: Whoa. Wow.
RUSLAN KOGAN: Tony Abbott did a media shoot in his budgie smugglers. I'd say that's got the highest chance of going viral on YouTube so I don't know. I'd probably - yeah. I don't know. What Gillard has done at the moment is she lied to the public and Australians don't...
TONY JONES: About the carbon tax, you mean.
RUSLAN KOGAN: About the carbon tax and Australians - you know, we're forgiving people and we can accept a lot of things but we can't accept a liar. Now, if a politician lied 20 years ago then there'd be ways of covering it up and there'd be all different media spin that you could do to it.
About Kevin Rudd being "knifed" by Julia Gillard:
RUSLAN KOGAN: I thought Josh said "Let's move on." No, well, yeah, I think that politicians - it's similar to being a business man or business woman. It's all about reputation. It's all about do people believe you? You have to be honest. The moment you lose the trust of the people you're finished and I think that that's exactly what's happened to Julia Gillard here. She's - she lied. She lost the trust of the public and, you know, Kevin Rudd's at the right place at the right time so that's why you're seeing his popularity rise.
On climate change and the carbon tax:
RUSLAN KOGAN: The issue with this whole carbon tax and global warming thing for me is, you know, I'm a global warming sceptic. I'm a global cooling sceptic. I'm a Elvis is still alive sceptic. You know, the thing with this issue is you've got important people out there saying the debate is over. The time to act is now. You know, this is a scientific issue. Science is based on debating every single hypothesis.
TONY JONES: But hang on. Can I just ask you this...
RUSLAN KOGAN: Yeah.
TONY JONES: ...evidently you don't believe in the scientists?
RUSLAN KOGAN: No, I believe the scientists but there's...
JOSH THOMAS: Which ones?
FUZZY AGOLLEY: Yeah, which ones?
RUSLAN KOGAN: There's scientists saying very valid arguments on both sides of the equation. There's just as much proof for one thing as there is for the other. Now, yeah, I think that's the question to be answered.
Very outspoken indeed.
First and foremost, nobody here is saying that what Ruslan said was wrong. He's an outspoken business owner and it's well within his rights to say whatever the hell he pleases as a guest of the national broadcaster when asked for his opinion by a panel of his peers and a crowd of onlookers. What he said, however, gave the Australian public a look inside the mind of Ruslan Kogan, and some might not have liked what they saw.
Because of the choice presented by the huge internet and brick-and-mortar retail environment these days, more and more people are likely to vote with their feet and their wallets when they hear something they don't like about a particular business or business owner. Look at Fair Trade coffee, products not tested on animals, ethically-sourced ingredients and charitable causes being supported by businesses for example. More and more, businesses are micro-managing about how they look to the people that spend money with them, and it's in a businesses best interest to keep the shopping public largely content to dodge potential consumer boycott. Politics is generally off-limits for brands.
The last Federal Election saw Australia plunged into a political gridlock for weeks, with the vote split down the middle of the country about who ought to lead our fine nation. That meant that if all of Australia was watching Q&A the night Ruslan told viewers what he thought about the current political landscape, roughly half would have agreed and half would have disagreed.
That transcript and the full replay of the episode went up online, so anyone who wanted to find out about what Ruslan thought of Australian politics could have gone and found out for themselves. Without knowingly doing so or meaning to, Ruslan Kogan managed to alienate customers the last time he appeared on Q&A. Don't believe me? Try this exchange from a few days ago in our comments section, where someone said that even now — almost three years on — that they avoid shopping with Kogan as a brand because of the owner's personal politics.
Ruslan Kogan's appearance on Q&A last night, however, was going to be a chance for him to engage with leaders who held his views — the very same views expressed on the Q&A program a few years ago. Instead what we got was a softer, calmer approach from Kogan. So what was he doing?
He told the viewing audience he hadn't had a shred of media training in his life, and while it might be true that he hasn't been classically trained in how to respond to a question, he knows how to drum up millions in free media coverage with controversial statements and crazy ways of doing business. No amount of free coverage, though, will be able to wash the taste out of the mouths of people who disagree with Kogan's politics.
Last night, we witnessed a 60-minute PR exercise in which Ruslan Kogan attempted to rehabilitate his image to customers turned off by his views politically. He appeared next to some of the biggest political figures in the land and managed to turn on a level of charm to appeal to the everyman. If you boiled down all of Kogan's words last night you'd be left with one simple statement:
"Politicians, and their exercises in spin, are ridiculous, I want to take a step back from that to be just a guy who loves his country and loves selling gadgets."
Do you avoid brands because of their politics?