COMMENT:

It's often said that successful advertising is the right message, delivered to the right person at the right time.

But as marketing teams sat in crisis meetings on the Friday afternoon of the Christchurch terror attack, it didn't take long for most to realise that this wasn't the right time to be spamming New Zealanders with sunny advertising messages.

What ensued was a series of frantic phone calls between marketers, media agencies and media owners. Whether it was a sugary beverage or a DIY deal, the ad had to come down. There wasn't a moment to spare.

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While even innocuous brands went into panic mode, the ante was really ramped up for those in the business of death. Included in that category is life and health insurer Partners Life, and its chief executive Naomi Ballantyne.

Only three weeks before the Christchurch attacks, Ballantyne hit the launch button on a contentious ad campaign that featured, among other messages, the tagline "Being dead is easier when you've got the right life cover".

The video version of the campaign played out in a large waiting room, featuring death-themed conversations among a range of quirky characters who had recently joined the realm of the deceased.

Ballantyne says the decision to include frank discussions about death was a deliberate move that addressed an old problem in the insurance industry.

"The idea was to normalise conversations around these topics," she says.

"New Zealanders just don't talk about, think about or want to buy life insurance products. We're the second lowest in the OECD for life insurance penetration. As an industry, we've never cracked that nut."

She says the classic trope of an elderly person dressed in a cardigan talking in obscure euphemisms simply wouldn't give the campaign the cut-through it needed. She says it was important to clearly express the idea that "bad things sometimes happen, whether you want to talk about them or not, but you can plan for them".

This approach was risky from the outset. Even before the attack, the campaign sparked some controversy, with members of the public reporting it to the Advertising Standards Authority for being insensitive.

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"We expected to have complaints," says Ballantyne, explaining that Partners Life worked closely with the ASA even before the campaign launched to make sure it was comfortable with the nature of the ads.

Most of the early complaints came from people who had recently lost someone close to them. Ballantyne says her team responded to each of those complaints, acknowledging the grief of the complainant but then also explaining the rationale behind the campaign.

The best-laid plans of advertisers

Despite the complaints, Partners Life remained confident in those first few weeks that it was still the right message, delivered to the right people at the right time.

But that all changed on March 15.

"When Christchurch happened I don't think New Zealanders needed us to tell them that bad things happen," Ballantyne says.

Among the thousands of advertising campaigns that were running across New Zealand at the time, you'd be hard-pressed to find a series of ads more likely to cause offence than those in the Partners Life campaign.

"We were a life insurance company talking about death. There was no good that could come from us confronting [people] with a message they were already getting clearly from the awful event," Ballantyne says.

The small marketing team at Partners Life reacted immediately, contacting every media organisation they could.

"We didn't just have television ads. We were all over the internet, we had bus backs and bus shelters and we had movies."

One of the biggest challenges was pulling ads from buses, which were literally driving through Christchurch at the time of the attack.

"We couldn't have a bus with a picture of a naked man in heaven, saying 'dying is easier when you've got the right cover'. It just wasn't funny anymore," she says

"For us it wasn't just about pulling ads because it was disrespectful to be running ads. It was because of the total tie-in between our ads and what was happening."

For the most part, Ballantyne says the media organisations all responded quickly, pulling every ad they could find, but there were still a few that slipped through the cracks and had to be pulled the next day.

"It was enormously stressful and you really can't beat them [the media] up because they're trying to tell the story," she says.

"We just had to breathe and realise that everyone was doing what they could and that we'd get there eventually."

Breaking the silence

In the weeks that followed the attack, Partners Life, along with many other brands, suspended its advertising efforts.

However, the insurance company is set to end this self-imposed silence as it relaunches its advertising campaign on Sunday.

Asked whether it's the appropriate time to return to advertising, Ballantyne admits this isn't an easy question to answer.

"I don't think there's a right answer for when it's okay," she says.

"When our ad campaign starts again, it might be too raw for some people. And for others, it may always be too raw. But I believe in what we do, and we just had to start again sometime."

Ballantyne says that while the key message of the campaign will remain the same, certain elements will be updated.

She says some straplines – particularly those featuring overt references to death – will be updated to offer more sensitive messaging.

"'Dying is easier when you've got the right cover' isn't the type of phrasing we want to use now," she says.

It's difficult to say whether this kind of phrasing will ever be appropriate in the future. As Ballantyne says: "[The Christchurch attack] was a terrible thing and the consequences of it will be with us forever. We have all changed."

Risky advertising is by its nature designed to push bounds and question what we deem appropriate as a society. This can goes both ways at any given moment. It's the awkward duality of existing in a society that relaxes toward the acceptance of the word "bugger", while simultaneously stiffening up around references to death.

These aren't easy decisions to make in even the most serene days, let alone after one of most traumatic moments in recent New Zealand history. Mistakes are likely to be made. And as lines of appropriateness shift over time, more mistakes will be made.