As the Rugby World Cup draws closer, advertisements featuring the All Blacks are becoming more popular across TV and social media. Joel Kulasingham explores the strict rules, bad acting and lucrative world of All Blacks ads.
Richie Mo'unga swayed nervously as he waited for the moment he had been practicing for.
Floodlights don't usually faze the All Blacks first five, but there was something different about the piercing glare of these lights that brought out the jitters. His teammates had just done the hard yards; all that was left was for him to bring it home.
It was time for Mo'unga to deliver his line.
"It'll be a good chance for us kickers to see what it's like in the warm up," he says to the weather man, his voice cracking under the camera's lingering gaze. "But I think we won't be having too many troubles [with the weather] tomorrow night."
It was shaky, perhaps even awkward, but Mo'unga had done enough to get the job done – he had slotted it through the posts.
Mo'unga, along with teammates Angus Ta'avao and Joe Moody, were at MetService headquarters delivering a special Wellington weather forecast ahead of their match against the Springboks at Westpac Stadium, as part of their promotional obligations as All Blacks players.
The resulting video – which featured the dry, self-deprecating humour that has come to define All Black advertisements over the years – would end up getting circulated on social media and making headlines in news organisations across the country. The All Blacks marketing machine was once again in full force.
When the opportunity to team up with MetService arose, New Zealand Rugby knew which players would be perfect for the job.
"It was actually quite dry and quite funny," Rob Nichol, CEO of the NZ Rugby Players Association, tells the Herald. "We know those guys are funny and so when they put them together they knew that would cause a few people to smile."
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It turns out, being an All Black in the age of peak-capitalism involves a lot more than just running and tackling. Promotional and sponsorship obligations can be as much a part of the job as cardio or weight-training.
After all, the All Blacks aren't just a rugby team – they also sell replica kits, silver fern stamped beanies, and most importantly in the modern era of sport, TV rights. Wearing the black jersey means being an ambassador for the All Blacks brand.
"When a player signs up to a contract, they agree to do a certain number of promotional hours per year," Nichol explains. "Those promotional hours can be used for rugby promotional purposes – so going to schools in the community, kind of non-commercial promotion of rugby if you like – and they can also be used for commercial promotion of rugby."
Nichol says "commercial promotion" can involve things like attending sponsor functions and being filmed or photographed for sponsor advertisements.
"In their playing contract, they receive a retainer. That retainer covers their employment obligations, which includes playing, training and performing promotional activities."
As the Rugby World Cup in September quickly approaches, the All Blacks will be plastered across television screens and social media feeds all over the world – not only during rugby matches, but also in advertisements as brands look to cash in on the world champions' spike in popularity.
The latest major All Blacks advertising campaign is Air New Zealand's new safety video, which features four All Blacks (including captain Kieran Read), All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, and several former All Blacks and Black Ferns players.
The video opens with a very meta scene at "Air All Blacks HQ" where a table of "board members", including Kiwi actor Cliff Curtis, discuss ideas for "the next safety video".
"So it's decided then. To show the world just how crazy about rugby we all are, we're changing our name to 'Air All Blacks'," the Whale Rider actor says in the opening seconds of the video.
Despite its primary purpose being a safety instruction video played before every Air New Zealand flight, the device has also become one of the airline's most successful advertisements.
Its latest All Blacks version has gained more than a million views on YouTube alone. Thousands more travellers will be exposed to the All Blacks as an inextricable feature of New Zealand's New Zealand-ness every time they fly on the airline.
"They (the All Blacks) represent New Zealand's values – hardworking, successful, understated," says University of Auckland head of marketing Bodo Lang. "Many All Blacks, not all of them, but many All Blacks have those values and they embody them pretty well. So they're attractive [to sponsors] because of that.
"If you're a New Zealand brand like Air New Zealand, and you really want to position yourself as a New Zealand brand with a global outlook, then the All Blacks is just the fantastic brand to play with because they're doing exactly that – they're a New Zealand brand that is world class."
To be associated with the All Blacks is to be linked with sporting excellence. And their dominance on the field has given them a particular aura off it as well.
For NZ Rugby, leveraging that aura to market the All Blacks involves a unique set of advertising rules to keep the team first, a philosophy that mirrors how the All Blacks operate on the field. No All Black is bigger than the team – or the brand.
Unlike the safety video, members of NZ Rugby may not be tossing up ideas with Air New Zealand's marketing executives, but they do play a major part in every advertisement they green light with their sponsors and partners, especially when it comes to using the All Blacks' name, players and brand.
"[Sponsors] can't specifically request players because they sponsor the team not the players," Nichol says. "So what will happen is every sponsor who signs an agreement with New Zealand Rugby, they'll be able to access players on certain conditions on a number of hours.
"So they might say 'we want to do a television advertisement, it's going to take us three hours to shoot it and we need five players', and the NZRU will do a schedule and say these are the five players that can help you."
NZ Rugby also have a few rules about All Blacks players using the team's name for their own individual sponsorships or endorsements, an avenue for players to earn more income outside of their rugby contracts. The main rule is that players can't wear the All Blacks jersey or represent the All Blacks in individual advertisements (except for a few tiny exceptions).
Likewise, in an ad by a sponsor of the All Blacks team, the players will usually be wearing their jerseys and there will be more than two All Blacks in the ad. The "three or more" rule was designed to differentiate what constitutes the All Blacks team and an individual player.
"A classic case is you'll notice in that Air New Zealand ad that the players are wearing their All Blacks uniform so they're identifiable as All Blacks and there's more than three players," Nichol says.
"We felt that if you were looking at one player, you would be looking and saying 'oh that's Kieran Read', whereas if you're looking at three players, you're kind of looking and thinking 'it looks like the All Blacks'."
Advertising scripts and storyboards are also checked and only approved when it works for the players and NZ Rugby.
"Sometimes it's quite straight forward, and other times things are a little bit more complicated ala the Air New Zealand advert," Nichol says. "And so the players are kind of asked to actually step outside the realm of being a rugby player and almost become an actor ... So we have a provision there that that's fine as long a player feels comfortable.
"All the scripts come to our office at the players association and we check all the scripts and all the decks for the adverts and we'll check it and say 'you need to change this' or 'you've only got one player there and you need three' or 'we don't think the players will be comfortable with that'."
Most of the advertisements involving the All Blacks – including the Air New Zealand ad – end up benefiting the All Blacks almost as much as the sponsors themselves, says Lang.
"I don't know what the commercial arrangements are but they might be getting sponsorship money out of it or they might be getting free flights out of it.
"But apart from those sorts of immediate things, of course what it does do is it just spreads the brand of the All Blacks around further than what their traditional media budget would allow. So I think it's a win-win of two of New Zealand's largest brands.
"I think using the All Blacks particularly now that the Rugby World Cup is just around the corner, is a really good move because it will have global appeal. It obviously has very high appeal within New Zealand."
But there is also such a thing as too much All Blacks. And there is a risk that the country's biggest sports team could become less of a favourite among major brands and audiences.
Lang calls this "wearout", a marketing term to describe an advertising campaign that loses its effectiveness after too much or repeated exposure.
"Wearout is something where you can say the appeal of the All Blacks is wearing out if you see too much of all of them collectively," Lang says.
"Not everyone in New Zealand are rugby fans. And people who are less interested in rugby might just get sick and tired of seeing the All Blacks endorsing all sorts of products and Air New Zealand safety videos."
But for now, All Blacks ads look to be here to stay – at least as long as they keep winning.
"If they did really badly in World Cups and they were I don't know number six in the world rankings or something, they wouldn't even be getting half as much sponsorship offers as they are compared to where they are now."