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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Loopy promotions have an upside

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Murray Deaker didn't hold back in his opinion of the 'abstain' ad. Photo / Kenny Rodger
Murray Deaker didn't hold back in his opinion of the 'abstain' ad. Photo / Kenny Rodger

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. This week, sports broadcaster Murray Deaker spoke for an alarmed and potentially frustrated nation.

There's a segment at the end of his TV show when the big man fixes the camera with a gimlet eye and lets us have it. None of your navel-gazing, politically correct guff here: this is the voice of old-fashioned, roll up your sleeves and give it heaps, Kiwi common sense.

On Wednesday, Deaker eyed the camera as if he was about to scrummage it into the ground and barked that he'd given up grog and fags, but he was buggered - at least I think that's how he put it - if he was giving up sex.

At that moment I knew Telecom's campaign to have us abstain during the Rugby World Cup was a dead duck.

It's sobering to reflect that if there's a prize for the silliest, most grating, most embarrassing, unfunny marketing ploy of 2011, the BackingBlack abstinence campaign wouldn't be a shoo-in: it would face stiff competition from Wellington Airport's Wellywood sign.

And there's still a quarter of the year to go. Who knows what other gems those madcaps in the advertising and marketing industry have in store for us?

Thankfully, when this idiotic campaign was greeted with near universal derision, Telecom was quick to adopt the principle that if you find yourself in a hole, the sensible thing to do is stop digging.

Abstinence and Wellywood have a few things in common, starting with the fact that both expose us to international ridicule.

Now I happen to believe that as a country we have a fair bit to be proud of and not much to apologise for, therefore we shouldn't fret over what others think of us, and certainly shouldn't act injured whenever foreigners make fun of us.

Having said that, there are enough people out there cultivating the stereotype of New Zealanders as daggy provincial hicks. They don't need our help.

Whatever you might think of Wellington's aspirations to being cool and creative, they weren't helped by Wellington Airport and its local body enablers coming up with the Wellywood sign, which manages the considerable feat of being unoriginal yet self-important.

One can't help but wonder if these things get as far as they do because the suits are too impressionable to tell the guys from the agency that actually their campaign isn't edgy or provocative or irreverent, it's a steaming pile of crap.

This isn't as easy as it sounds. If there's one thing the guys from the agency are really good at, it's selling themselves. I've sat in on meetings at which ad men made their proposed campaigns sound like the greatest messages for mankind since Moses came down from Mt Sinai with the Ten Commandments tucked under his arm.

All too often clients take them at their word, rather than risk being sniggered at by admitting they don't get it.

In both cases the response to public resistance was to stress that they were tongue in cheek, not meant to be taken too seriously, for goodness sake. The clear implication is that if you don't like them, you can't have much of a sense of humour.

Telecom and Saatchi & Saatchi obviously intended the abstinence campaign to be a running joke but intent is no guarantee of outcome, whether you're striving to be deep and meaningful or saucily amusing.

It's all in the execution.

A joke that doesn't work isn't funny and therefore can be misinterpreted, whether wilfully or otherwise, hence various overseas media outlets adding this sorry episode to their ever-expanding catalogue of our World Cup neuroses.

It's not that everybody has to find it funny. That's impossible anyway, given that for some people life is a never-ending search for things to take offence at.

And if it's so bland that it couldn't possibly offend anyone, those who like their humour dark and unsettling will be dismissive.

The canned Air New Zealand in-flight safety video in which All Black pin-up boy Richard Kahui declined an invitation to give a gay flight attendant a peck on the cheek is an example of a campaign that amused most people, offended some and no doubt prompted a shrug of indifference from others. Which is fine: the ludicrous and small-minded fuss created by a precious few should have been ignored.

The problem with the Wellywood sign and Telecom's BackingBlack campaign is that virtually no one apart from those who conceived and signed off on them thinks they're funny.

So full credit to Telecom and its ad agency: they set out to unite the country ahead of the World Cup; not only did they succeed, they made it look easy.

- NZ Herald

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