David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Wicked Campers - 100% offensive

Wicked Campers has attracted a slew of complaints over the crude slogans on its vans and doesn't seem keen to change its ways - but a trio of ministers are intent on bringing it to heel.

• Government ministers are teaming up to crack down on campervan company over its slogans.
• Fines and camping ground bans are among moves being considered.
• Associate Tourism minister Paula Bennett is leading the charge, saying she believes the slogans are offensive: "I'm determined to do something about it."

There is a danger this article will give Wicked Campers the very publicity it seemingly seeks out through the brash slogans on the back of its vans.

And yet, it was a risk three government ministers were willing to take when deciding to tell the Herald on Sunday of their determination to squish from the company the behaviour for which it has become notorious.

And it suits Wendy Palmer, who pulled into the Four Square Spring Creek on the outskirts of Blenheim about 18 months ago to see a Wicked Camper parked up.

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"Big legged women ain't got no soul," read the slogan on the back of the van. Led Zeppelin lyric or not, Palmer noted the short-skirted, bikini-topped tourists in the van and thought of girls not quite so body-proud.

"My first thought was 'f*** that's offensive'," she says. She snapped an image of it, did her shopping and left. "I just got angrier and angrier. I thought, 'you know what, it's an advertisement so I'm going to make a complaint'."

So she did, working through the bureaucratic detail of lodging a formal complaint with the Advertising Standards Authority. Once done, it worked through the system and Wicked Campers earned another of the 15 upheld or settled complaints against its name.

At that level, it exceeds Hell Pizza, once noted for its edgy and offensive campaigns, which has had 13 complaints settled or upheld.

It was a "brief moment" of satisfaction for Palmer, 66. Brief, because nothing really changed.

As the ASA notes in its decision, there was "concern" from its board at Wicked Campers' "repeated refusal to engage with, and respect, the principles of self-regulation".

"I'd like to see the ASA have more teeth," says Palmer. The current system "relies on [the advertiser] being a good corporate citizen".

"You have a company that says 'f*** being a good corporate citizen'. I'd like them to be a responsible marketer. Funny slogans are great but having funny slogans at the expense of women, largely, is just awful."

On that, there's wide agreement.

Wicked Campers is the brainchild of Australian John Webb.

He has ignored repeated requests to be interviewed for this story. To be fair, he (and Wicked Campers) ignore pretty much everyone. They don't respond to the ASA, didn't respond to NZ Transport Agency concerns, ignored government ministers who wrote and didn't take calls from the Director General of Conservation this week.

His only interview appears to have been with an Australian marketing website about seven years ago. Of the business, he said: "It's more about a reflection of myself in some ways ... just having fun. It comes from ... looking for reaction. We think we can't do that then all of a sudden, we're 'stuff it, let's do it'."

The business came as he moved from fixing cars to renting cars. The Wicked Camper brand, with its graffiti styling "all started from getting my wife to paint a car to make it look a bit more special".

"The next one was painting a van rather than fix dents cause they're always getting dented. I'd rather paint them up than fix dents. As soon as we fix it up they dent it again."

Gemima Cody altered a Wicked Camper to a message more her liking after having no other choice than to use the company during a trip in Australia. The altered version went viral online. Photo / Supplied
Gemima Cody altered a Wicked Camper to a message more her liking after having no other choice than to use the company during a trip in Australia. The altered version went viral online. Photo / Supplied

Then, having "discovered travellers", Webb realised they need somewhere to sleep. "That's where I come up with the idea of cheapie vans." At the time of the interview, around 2009, he estimated there were 1200 of them worldwide.

There are two big advantages the business has over others, he said during the interview. There was the name - Wicked - and then there was "the one-liners on the back door".

"That's what everyone makes a comment on," he said.

The comments here and in Australia have focused on the slogans - and the attitudes they appear to promote towards women.

Try these out: "In every princess there is a little slut who wants to try it just once"; "Fat chicks are harder to kidnap"; "A man would be interested in a woman's mind if it bounced gently as she walked"; "Up the bum. No babies!"; "Your thighs won't touch if my head's between them"; "A big legged woman ain't got no soul" (Wendy Palmer's victory); "RBT: Random Breast Testing" (next to cartoon images of breasts) and "I've often wanted to drown my troubles, but I can't get my wife to go swimming."

Blenheim's Wendy Palmer was so angry about "A big legged woman ain't got no soul" she complained to the Advertising Standards Authority. Photo / Supplied
Blenheim's Wendy Palmer was so angry about "A big legged woman ain't got no soul" she complained to the Advertising Standards Authority. Photo / Supplied

The slogans push boundaries in ways which makes it difficult to write about them.

And as it turns out, the very problem might be the answer.

And that's where three government ministers who are really, really annoyed with Wicked Campers come into play.

Paula Bennett is the leopard-skin wearing, smack-talking ("zip it, sweetie") Associate Minister of Tourism. Like most people interview for this story, she says she isn't easily offended.

Wicked Campers, though, is in her opinion, offensive, she says.

"Most of [the slogans] I find offensive as a woman, as a mother and as a grandmother. They are deeply offensive and I don't easily offend."

That matches the sentiment she gets in correspondence to her office and that of Prime Minister and Tourism Minister John Key. Conservation Minister Maggie Barry, who oversees the Department of Conservation and the spectacular campgrounds and parks for which it is guardian, gets similar feedback, as does the Minister for Women, Louise Upston.

Bennett has a hit list of solutions. She's spoken to Barry: "Maggie Barry is looking at whether they can be banned from DoC camping grounds because they are so offensive."

There's also been conversations with Justice Minister Amy Adams about getting some bite into the Advertising Standards Authority "so they can act against the company".

There's the potential for local councils to pass bylaws - Whangarei suggested fines under the signage bylaw while Queenstown is looking at fining for breaching the district plan.

There's community and tourism industry rejection. "I encourage any private company that are giving services to this company to give serious thought as to whether they are a family friendly company they want to be associated with.

"Maybe if people who are travelling in their vans literally can't go to certain places and made not welcome, maybe that's stronger than any legislation we can do."

Paula Bennett. Photo / Alexander Speirs
Paula Bennett. Photo / Alexander Speirs

Bennett hasn't had officials approach Webb yet. "What I've heard is that he's unresponsive and quite likes the attention. I'd quite like to be going with an ultimatum."

All across Wellington this month, officials have been studying legislation and looking for traction.

Bennett: "I'm determined to do something about it."

That was Monday. By Thursday, Barry had sounded out officials on the campground ban and found it a logistical nightmare.

But she'd scared out a replacement solution. Barry: "DoC campgrounds and reserves are family friendly places. We do feel these are offensive to children and families." Banning is "convoluted", requiring changes to a multitude of bylaws across the country.

But DoC can make available rangers to assist local authorities - and police, if possible - to issue fines to the people driving the vans which breach the District Plan. A $300 fine "slapped on" Wicked Campers' customers for displaying "deeply offensive" material might wake the company up, she thinks.

"If you can't reach them in a moral and ethical way, the bylaw would be an immediate and apparent deterrent to the driver of the vehicle."

Funny slogans are great but having funny slogans at the expense of women, largely, is just awful.
Wendy Palmer

And it's not a case of a fine which would never be paid, she says. These would be instant fines which could mean you can "take away their keys or prevent them from continuing their journey".

"I wish it wasn't driving through our communities."

As the week wore on, Bennett had also landed another possible solution. The Chief Censor was considering if it had a role, given the company was technically publishing obscene material on its vans.

If so, that's a $15,000 fine for each offence. And wilful offences could mean jail, says Bennett.

The police might also have a role, she says.

Women's Minister Upston, also associate local government minister, is looking to support councils in finding a solution. Local Government New Zealand is looking to see what legal support can be provided to councils looking to tackle the problem.

Yes, she says, the anti-women theme has struck her. "That's why, personally and professionally, I just find them absolutely revolting.

"There is a very strong level of disgust with this particular business behaviour. We need to dissuade the customers from supporting a business like that." This is, in her opinion, "nasty, distasteful and abhorrent".

For Wicked Campers, this is not a fresh issue. In Australia, Queensland's Parliament tried to find a solution after community anger saw a petition in 2014 signed by 127,000 people over having the princess/slut slogan removed. It worked, briefly, and Webb folded.

But really, two years later, nothing has changed. Can we do any better? Paula Bennett thinks so.

Wicked Campers may find its vans banned from public camping grounds if ministers have their way. Photo / Supplied
Wicked Campers may find its vans banned from public camping grounds if ministers have their way. Photo / Supplied

Webb has been unrepentant. Last year, as the guidebook giant Lonely Planet removed listings from its Australian edition, Webb issued a press release over the slogans used in Australia and New Zealand.

Having suggested in an earlier press release that it was listening to complaints, he said the company had "employed a team of highly-intelligent, socially-conscious super monkeys to closely monitor the subject matter featured on our vehicles and scream loudly when offended".

The duty of the monkeys? "Satisfying the whims and wishes of the humour-inept, self-righteous moral majority while wearing little monkey tuxedos and funny hats."

Oh, and stop spray-painting over or otherwise defacing the slogans, said Webb, or the police will be called.

If you wouldn't say it to your grandmother why ... let it in your park?
Duncan Ridd, campground manager

It could have been so different, says Auckland company director John O'Grady. He is part owner of the registered company Wicked Campers Ltd - not, he stresses, the company which has the slogans on the back of the vans.

He registered the name just after Webb started his own business in New Zealand which meant the Australian got in first.

"We were going to trade as Wicked Campers," he says. The idea was to target the backpacker market and pitch to them something along the lines of "wicked beaches, wicked bush, wicked mountains, wicked New Zealand".

"Look what you could have done with that," he says. "New Zealand has some of the best scenery in the world. You could have made it a theme."

That's not the philosophy espoused by Webb's Wicked Campers, which advertises mountain holidays with images suggesting cocaine use.

Duncan Ridd, who manages three campgrounds in Queenstown, has visitors streaming through seeking out those mountains.

This tourist town could be the frontline of the battle against Wicked Campers, but Ridd is already fighting the fight.

He's started refusing the vans entry. Some can stay - once they cover the slogans with bin bags fastened with duct tape.

Other campground operators in Queenstown hold similar feelings.

"If you wouldn't say it to your grandmother why would you let it in your park?" asks Ridd.

- Herald on Sunday

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