Thankfully the foolish and ill-thought-out Telecom / Saatchi “Abstain for the Game” rugby world cup advertising campaign has been ditched after just one day of maximum coverage before its intended launch. Clips of the advert, featuring former All Blacks captain Sean Fitzpatrick intoning his lines in a stilted drone whilst driving a dodgem car shaped like a pink fist (subtle…), appeared as the lead item on both TV1 and TV3’s post-news magazine programmes this week, and were heavily discussed in most other media forums. It became the lead story of the day, such was its valuable blend of corporate incompetence and car-crash television. Clearly this big splash was part of the orchestrated launch plan for the campaign, and it achieved the desired blanket coverage immediately. This exposure was a given, knowing the editorial priorities of commercial news producers, who will leap on just about anything with a sexual angle.
But the immediate and overwhelmingly negative media and public reaction was a surprise to Telecom and its ad gurus, who were operating in their own little bubble of hype. Sure, fellow advertising industry representatives are hardly impartial when judging a competitor’s work, but they had a point when they observed that “Abstain for the Game” was a lousy idea from the beginning. (Media reporter John Drinnan wonders if it’s a similar campaign to that pitched to Toohey’s beer in Australia but rejected by that more sensible company). Corporate apologists for the campaign adopted the line that “it’s only a bit of fun”. This would make more sense if the snippets of advertising broadcast on TV1 and TV3 actually depicted anything amusing or entertaining. Instead, it looked like a standard example of an ad firm trying to generate hype for a “so bad it’s good” viral campaign, like Air New Zealand’s almost equally ill-judged “Rico” campaign that is so loathed by the airline’s proud staff. And seriously: a Trojan horse as a sly reference to American, i.e. not sold in New Zealand, condoms? Had they been re-watching Porkies?
There’s only so much nonsense rugby fans will put up with willingly. The problem surrounding an attempt to manipulate the public and the media into promoting a company’s branded campaign to support a national rugby team is that the All Blacks require no such hype to perform well. It is telling that no current All Blacks player or management member would be seen within a mile of the campaign – they recognised a dog when they saw it. This was all about branding Telecom as a nationalistic supporter of the All Blacks, one of the country’s strongest marketing brands (and sometimes a quite good rugby side too). But there is already more than enough hype around the All Blacks, thanks to the NZRFU’s unstinting keenness for media exposure and its attempts to cement commercial rugby as New Zealand’s profit-generating state religion.
Telecom is by its very nature a conservative firm, rooted in its history as a state provider and in recent decades the orchestrator of a largely monolithic pseudo-monopoly in key aspects of the telecommunications market. As such it struggles with its public profile, seeking to appear as cutting edge but hamstrung by its revenue base as a fixed-line provider and its legal obligation to provide Kiwishare free local calling. Telecom is the big company New Zealanders love to complain about, in part because they used to own it and its performance as a private enterprise has failed to live up to expectations. Which in part explains the negative reaction to the Abstain advertising teasers. New Zealanders have no difficulty supporting the All Blacks. Rugby fans buy the replica gear (although not if it’s ridiculously expensive), shell out surprisingly large sums to watch the games on TV on the Sky pay-TV monopoly, and generally dominate tea-room conversations up and down the country. Even rugby agnostics will know many a rugby fan, and acknowledge how important the game is to them. The point of all that is: New Zealanders don’t need a faux-clever ad company and a faceless corporate giant telling them how to support their national side. They’re quite happy doing that (and, presumably, doing “it”) the way they’ve always done it. And preferably with the bare minimum of pointless and, more importantly, un-Kiwi hype.
In dumping the campaign Telecom have made the right decision: things could only get worse if they persisted with the advertising. But the statement by Telecom’s head of retail Allan Gourdie indicated that the company still hasn’t made the right connections. Gourdie said ‘We caused offence to some people and for that we apologise’. That completely misses the point. No-one in their right mind could seriously be offended by such a feeble attempt at humour. It wasn’t crude or objectionable due to its sexual content, although I did see the point when some parents quibbled that they didn’t like having to explain to their children what abstinence was. (There are far worse things on pre-watershed TV than the word abstinence, I would’ve thought – Mark Sainsbury’s moustache and Duncan Garner’s personality, for example). The reason people complained so uniformly about the campaign was because it was just a really moronic idea, which by implication sheds light on Telecom and Saatchi’s low opinion of New Zealanders and their sense of humour. Sure, it’s hard to make innovative ads for rugby audiences, because it’s supposedly a notoriously conservative bunch, and this probably explains some of the more Neanderthal offerings in the past. But making good advertisements is an ad firm’s job, and approving good advertisements is a successful business board’s job, both of which probably attract very healthy salaries.
In one small way I feel relieved. Cancelling the ads before they run is the best possible outcome for Sean Fitzpatrick. He seems like a nice guy, but in this campaign he appeared completely out of his depth in a would-be comedic role. So now the campaign’s been cancelled after just one day of hype he gets the best of both worlds: the bare minimum of lingering shame for the association with the advert, which will die down quickly as it’s eclipsed by the world cup; and, even better, he gets to keep the money!