In the wake of a prolonged media firestorm that has transfixed trans-Tasman rugby, the All Blacks and New Zealand Rugby have made it clear that they are choosing to stand for inclusion and diversity. But is its latest foray into 'wokeness' inspired by pure benevolence or cynical brand promotion?

If its latest promotional campaign is to be believed, the All Blacks' next opponent poses a threat unlike anything they've faced before.

"The next battle is different," says the narrator of an advertisement called "Diversity is Strength", released last week by the All Blacks and their corporate sponsors AIG. "The next enemy is truly formidable and deeply devious. It is discrimination, an enemy that cannot be fought alone."

At one point in the video, All Black Jerome Kaino tugs on his jersey to reveal a rainbow streak across his chest, a vibrant mission statement emblazoned on the breastplate of his All Blacks armour.

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"It must be defeated together. It would take more than 15, it would take thousands, millions," the narrator continues, as All Blacks and Black Ferns stars stand together in unison.

"And now AIG has combined all the colours of the rainbow to create a united black."

The diversity ad, along with several other events leading up to it, has thrust New Zealand's preeminent sports team into new territory.

The All Blacks – a beloved brand that has long been an advocate for diversity, whether through its celebration of the haka or through NZ Rugby's recent pledge to support women's rugby – has chosen to position itself in support of a new tide of social movements, in particular the fight for LGBTQI rights.

Last year, NZ Rugby became the first national sports body to receive the Rainbow Tick for its work towards diversity and inclusion.

Kiwi rugby fans are witnessing, in real time, the rising social conscience and politicisation of their national team. The kids are calling it wokeness: a measurable state of awareness about what's happening in the world (especially social justice issues).

It's been nearly a month now since Wallabies and Waratahs fullback Israel Folau suggested that God's plan for gay people is hell.

Since then, several All Black players and representatives have spoken against Folau's comments, including one-cap Chiefs star Brad Weber and back-up halfback TJ Perenara - nimble no.9s who lead both on and off the field.

All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen also chimed in on the controversy, saying he was "really proud" of how Perenara addressed the situation.

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"You're a good human being regardless of whether you're a gay person, a straight person. Quite frankly [the All Blacks] don't care and I don't care personally myself," Hansen said.

NZ Rugby boss Steve Tew also supported the All Blacks' comments, while newly elected NZR board member Sir Michael Jones made clear of his vision for the sport.

"It was very clear to us that rugby continues to be a game of inclusion, that diversity is recognised and every Kiwi can feel like they can be part of this whanau," Jones said.

"For me personally, that's my feelings, particularly about the place of rugby. Rugby is a place where no-one is left behind. It encompasses all, and that's very important to me personally."

Which is why at first glance, the diversity commercial looked like a carefully crafted piece of public relations, impeccably timed as a response to the media storm created by Australia's controversial crusader.

Israel Folau. Photo / Getty Images
Israel Folau. Photo / Getty Images

However, the timing of the ad was purely coincidental and was released to align with Tokyo Pride week.

It was created by All Blacks sponsors AIG, the world's largest insurance organisation, as part of its wider 'Project Zero' to tackle key social issues. In this case, the All Blacks and Black Ferns brands were used as part of the insurance company's push to promote diversity.

The ad and its message was a culmination of a contentious month for trans-Tasman rugby, one that has divided players and fans alike – a sea change in the sport.

And for the most part, the ad has been received well. But some rugby fans have called the campaign nothing more than an exercise in branding – an attempt at corporate promotion under the guise of social justice, LGBTQI as EBITDA. Others disagreed with the politicisation of the All Blacks and its brand.

"Ah, corporate social justice. My favourite kind of social justice," said one fan in response to the video on social media.

"Why must everything be politicised?" another fan asked. "The All Blacks are the best team in the world because we have the most talented players in the world at almost every position. It's about our rugby culture; it's about training and technique and pride in the jersey. The team is diverse but selections are not connected to 'affirmative action' in any way, shape or form. Drop the virtue signalling."

In the age of incessant social media, the lines between corporate benevolence and cynical brand promotion are becoming increasingly blurred.

"I think if you're trying to use something [like the LGBTQI movement] to sell your product then I think it's not going to wash really well," says University of Auckland head of marketing Bodo Lang.

"But if the audience, if the target market has a sense that this is an authentic portrayal in how the brand is operating and how it communicates with its employees and its suppliers and its customers then I think that's where the sweet spot really exists where you can actually get goodwill and be seen as a good corporate citizen."

The All Blacks haka. Photo / Getty Images
The All Blacks haka. Photo / Getty Images

Lang says the All Blacks' brand identity needs to line up with what actually happens behind the scenes and in the locker room for their message to convince audiences.

"The timing [of the ad] is far from ideal," says Lang. "If you roll this sort of stuff out, some people will just say that's just window dressing and really what goes on in the locker room, there might be all sorts of comments made about somebody who has been weak and not having their strongest day and they might be called certain names."

By all accounts – through the outward actions of players and staff, and its business decisions – the All Blacks and NZ Rugby have shown that they are serious about diversity and inclusion.

But this brand of woke capitalism can also bring with it its own complications. Advertisements advocating for diversity don't necessarily help the lives of thousands of New Zealanders for which discrimination is still a very real experience. Corporate appropriation of social movements can also dilute and misrepresent the fight for inclusion and equality.

"It's got two sides to it," says manager of Outline NZ Duncan Matthews. "On one hand, having people like the All Blacks sort of stand up for diversity and things like that, and so publicly on a TV ad that lots of people will see, is good in terms of people seeing other people they respect endorse rainbow communities or any kind of diversity.

"On the flip side of that, just putting out a TV ad doesn't necessarily address what's going on for people who are playing rugby, whether they are All Blacks or they're people at school, or even maybe the administrative staff at New Zealand Rugby.

"So it can definitely be a two-sided thing without that follow through commitment behind the scenes to genuinely improve things for people involved in rugby."

NZ Rugby declined to comment on the public response and criticisms of the ad when approached by the Herald.

The All Blacks will like the public to believe that diversity means strength - and it sure seems to be strong for business. But it will be through continued action that the country's most influential sports team can effect the change they claim to support.

"The sweet spot for these types of campaigns is when the company that stands behind the brand actually personifies those values that are being told in the ad," says Lang.

"Rather than just standing proudly and stretching their jersey to reveal rainbow colours, they could've shown us what actual diversity means and how it helps."