A ginger beer maker whose advertising offered to swap a ginger child for the drink has apologised for offending people, and has asked for police help given the strength of the criticism.
The public backlash left Hakanoa Ginger Beer maker Rebekah Hay frightened and in tears.
"I'm sorry I offended people. It was the reason behind the campaign that made us say yes. I wouldn't have done it if it was just a joke."
She revealed that she only agreed to the campaign after a marketing manager, Dave King, came to her with the idea after his ginger-haired son had been bullied.
"He's a really sweet kid," said Mr King of his 8-year-old son who lost his school bag to four bullies. The contents were tipped to the ground and the bag thrown over a fence after jibes about his ginger hair. "When I told people about it, they said 'that's what you get for being ginger'."
The reaction angered Mr King and he wanted to do something about it. He dreamed up the campaign and told his staff to find a ginger beer company that could be used as a vehicle.
For Ms Hay, 49, the approach came at a time she was trying to work out how to push her one-woman, one-employee business to the point where it would make money. She started the business three years ago after being made redundant.
Ms Hay said she started out with $50,000 and a stall on the side of the road in Auckland's Westmere. From there, it was farmers markets and getting into dairies. "I haven't bought clothes in years. I'm just paying the bills. There is no relaxing. Every little business owner knows that."
This year a new business plan showed the need for a marketing strategy. At that point, Dave King's son got bullied.
Ms Hay met Mr King and heard the idea. The campaign was offered almost cost-free - everyone was paid in Hakanoa's ginger syrup. "Dave said there is definitely going to be controversy around this."
He also said it would catch national media attention. "I said 'okay then'." Ms Hay said she wouldn't have taken it up if there wasn't an underlying point to it.
The campaign offered parents of ginger children that chance to trade their "spawn" for a six-pack of ginger beer. Angry emails, text messages and phone calls followed. At the Little Grocer, where the child-swap could take place, people abused the shopkeeper.
Her earlier business plans included setting up a male brothel with well-known redhead Pam Corkery.
"I got more abuse over this," she said.
There was also a repeat texter who told Ms Hay he knew where she lived, that he was coming to her house. She visited police, asked them to call him but said she wanted no charges pressed.
"The thing about playing the media - and we were - is you can't control it. It is a runaway stampede. I courted controversy and I have to live with the consequences. It is not for the faint-hearted, this kind of marketing plan."