Toby Manhire

Toby Manhire on New Zealand

Toby Manhire: Anti-plain packaging ads are driving me BATs

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I wouldn't say I'm addicted. I could give up any time. But by God those Agree/Disagree ads are transfixing. Photo / Thinkstock
I wouldn't say I'm addicted. I could give up any time. But by God those Agree/Disagree ads are transfixing. Photo / Thinkstock

I wouldn't say I'm addicted. I could give up any time. But by God those Agree/Disagree ads are transfixing. You know the ones, with the white-on-black animations, presented by the people at British American Tobacco (NZ) in an attempt to engender reflection on the evils of putting cigarettes in plain packaging.

When I say transfixed, I mean watch-through-your-fingers transfixed - the way you might be transfixed by a mouse twitching in a trap, or a clump of hair fished out of a blocked drain, or a spectacularly ugly baby.

I was hooked from the off. In the first TV commercial, a disembodied arm writes in big block letters CREATE. Then dozens of tiny Oompa-Loompa-like workers begin to cover those letters with bricks, as a furious violin plays. Chains appear, hauling the words IF I, and IT I SHOULD OWN IT to either side of CREATE.

We've only just begun. Zoom out and, woah, those chains are attached to pulleys, which are in turn attached to a number of eye hooks.

The eye hooks are screwed into some poor fellow's bald head. Whoever he is, he's taking very well having all these busy building sites swinging from his skull. And all the while, a voice says: "We agree that tobacco is harmful. We disagree with plain packaging because it prevents companies using the legal branding they've created and invested in".

It's as if the creative team's brains exploded on to a whiteboard and they wrote everything down and gave it to a junior animator and said: Make this.

Another favourite of mine appeals to New Zealanders' suspicion of that dastardly place called Australia - where plain-packaging legislation survived every legal challenge the tobacco giants could muster, obliging manufacturers to encase their sticks in a puke green box. This ad is a corker. It could only be enhanced with a shot of Greg Chappell biting off Richie McCaw's face.

It begins with a middle-aged fellow wandering out of his house, surrounded by pasture. The camera soars up above the clouds, like a Spidercam hung from the stars. With an ominous woosh, the plucked guitar soundtrack - uncannily like the Country Calendar theme - is replaced by something altogether more terrifying: A didgeridoo. We zoom out further and - streuth - New Zealand has become an enclave, lodged in eastern Australia, like, say, a cancerous tumour.

"We agree that tobacco is harmful, we disagree that Australia's untested plain packaging law should be used in New Zealand," runs the voiceover, as a ship the size of Tasmania inexplicably sails towards Perth.

Gold, this is. Leave aside the fact that we draw on the laws of Australia and other similar countries all the time - it's good, sensible practice. Leave aside the fact that the agency that created the ads is itself Australian. Leave aside, even, that the dude doing the voiceover has a distinct Aussie twang to his vowels.

Forget that. Just look at the name of the company itself. An outfit called British American Tobacco is lecturing New Zealanders on the perils of falling under Australia's imperial spell? British American Tobacco? You might as well be called Bad Worse Death.

The latest nugget from the BAT oeuvre, released upon New Zealand this week, features a very angry man - possibly he's angry because he doesn't have a mouth or eyes - preparing a pile of protest placards. He picks one with the following scrawl: "If I disagree with something it should be banned." We are then invited to consider whether we agree or disagree with the disagreeing eyeless man? Clear enough? Time for a lie down.

The BAT campaign, says Health Minister Tony Ryall, is a waste of money. He's wrong about that. The project, I'm guessing, offered the communications staff at the company something they haven't been able to enjoy for ages - long, boozy lunches with snappily dressed ad executives. That elusive, almost forgotten, feeling of being loved.

Submissions to the Ministry of Health's consultation on plain-packaging close this afternoon (you can make an email submission here ), and it's a safe bet that Ryall and co will push on with legislation thereafter.

They'll push on confident that they can calmly overcome the incoherent wheezing of BAT and its friends with common sense. Because public health faces a task something like winning an argument against a man with no eyes and no mouth, chains screwed into his head, running wildly around a swimming pool, shouting at the sky.

- NZ Herald

Toby Manhire is also a columnist for APN's Listener magazine.

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