I was passing through Matamata on Sunday, minding my own business, when I spied a vehicle with a message on it that read: "Life sucks if your girlfriend doesn't". That certainly grabbed my attention and alleviated the passenger seat boredom that had gripped me since Taupo.
My first reaction was to see if my 12-year-old had also read it; she hadn't. My second reaction was to realise I now had firsthand experience of a developing story about the anti-social messages on Wicked Campers' hire vehicles.
"Fat chicks are harder to kidnap" is the wording on one van while the photograph accompanying the NZ Herald article showed a vehicle bearing the words: "A man would be interested in a womans mind if it bounced gently as she walked". (The missing apostrophe is the least of the problems with this misogynistic sentence.)
The Advertising Standards Authority has upheld a raft of complaints about Wicked Campers vehicles. These include:
"If you love me you would swallow it"
"Up the bum. No babies!"
"Your thighs won't touch if my head's between them"
"A big legged woman aint got no soul"
"RBT: Random Breast Testing"
"I've often wanted to drown my troubles, but I can't get my wife to go swimming"
Last year an open letter from Women's Refuge asked the company to reconsider the wording on its vans: "Misogyny masquerading as humour is still misogyny! We are concerned for instance that you consider a 'joke' about drowning your wife to be amusing."
Another upheld complaint was in regard to the message: "If you woke up with a sore ass and $100 in your pocket, would you tell anyone?" While the offending message was not funny, part of the actual complaint about it was (presumably unintentionally) hilarious.
The complainant wrote: "I think it's disgusting and they need to be pulled ASAP!" You could not make this up.
From a marketing point of view, the people at Wicked Campers have been really clever. They've taken a category that is boring and deeply uncool, and tried to make it edgy and appealing to young people. Camper vans are typically the domain of the middle-aged, those cocooned and risk-averse people who want all the comforts of home while they're travelling around the countryside.
By adding these offensive messages to this oh-so dull product, Wicked Campers have shifted the vehicles from something most self-respecting young people would not be seen dead in to something anti-establishment and daring. It's pure marketing genius.
The brand image is reinforced by their website which asks: "Want to know about fuel usage, campervan features, camping spots or just where to buy good drugs?" and "Is it easy to buy drugs in New Zealand? Yes! But compared to Europe and the US, it can be a little expensive!"
Wicked Campers is thumbing its nose at the New Zealand public, the Advertising Standards Authority and Women's Refuge while pandering to the sensibilities of young foreign tourists who are desperate to look free-spirited while embracing one of the dullest and most conservative forms of transport known to mankind.
So far Wicked Campers seems untouchable. Complaints about the van messages date back to at least 2010. They're getting away with foisting misogynistic, homophobic, fat-shaming and pro-violence messages on the general population.
What's really worrying is that this isn't just one misguided signwriting job. This is a sustained and deliberate campaign that offends a wide range of people while trying to attract a very narrow target market.
Thankfully, the Whangarei District Council seems poised to become the hero of the piece and potentially save us all from this visual pollution. As well as threatening to demand that Wicked Campers clients cover up the offending words, this council is also threatening legal action for an alleged breach of signage bylaws.
Perhaps the prospect of a $20,000 fine might encourage the bosses of this organisation to rethink their vehicle signage. Nothing else seems to have dented the company's commitment to its crass and offensive marketing strategy.