Advertising Change: Presenting a New New Zealander?

Author: Joe Clifford is a postgraduate student in the Development Studies department at the University of Auckland. He is also affiliated with the Australian National University. His current research focuses on nationalism and development in Indonesia since the transition to democracy. During the course of the pandemic he has also been working in a community-based assessment centre in Auckland.

Advertising makes up much of the texture of our everyday lives. If we are to try and understand how identity is presented and formed,we are required to pay attention to adverts, if for nothing else than their ubiquity. It is very difficult to find areas of urban space that are not home to multiple advertisers competing for one’s attention. It is equally difficult to find websites, TV channels, YouTubers, or large events that do not build revenue from advertising into their funding models. Stadiums, skyscrapers, and sports teams all participate in the sale of naming rights to advertisers. A few weeks ago, on The Familiar Strange podcast, it was pointed out how the most popular cologne in Australia was made by VB. The Familiar Strangers then discussed how the advertising around the beer brand had shifted away from older Australian tropes of undertaking hard, physical labour in the outback to showing corporate workers getting kebabs in city environments. The shift in this type of advertising tells us something of how big companies appreciate changes in demographics, consumption, and, in the instance of VB, an alteration in masculinity. Listening to this from Aotearoa/New Zealand made me reflect on how large corporations help create the idea of being a ‘Kiwi’ and also use it as a way to sell more products.

Advertisers drawing on notions of national belonging in Aotearoa/New Zealand is so commonplace that it would require a book length study to properly map the nation-identity-advertisement relationship that has developed. One extreme example of how this triad plays out is the advert by the muesli bar company ‘Tasti’, who in 2013 asked on Facebook for their followers’ ideas to put into an ad for their company that showcased New Zealand icons. The subsequent advert is probably the most succinct presentation of traditional ‘Kiwiana’ one could imagine. The 100% pure campaign has successfully used notions of environmental purity and natural beauty to sell the country as a tourist destination. Other adverts such as the famous ‘ghost chips’ advert draw heavily on contemporary Māori humour to push an anti-drink driving message which targets a more specific segment of Aotearoa/New Zealand society. We can also see the construction of identity through advertisements that have focused on saying who we are not, i.e. Australians. Kiwibank, Mitre-10 and Marmite have all run ads in this vein.

The inspiration of this blog post came from the discussion of how change and continuity in advertising reflect changes in masculinity, so I have focused here on two ‘classic Kiwi’ ads that have both undergone reboots. I would suggest we can understand these examples as a form of myth making in Roland Barthes’ sense of that word.

The Southern Man

In the early 1990s the Speight’s beer company ran an advertising campaign based on the idea of the Southern Man. A cheeky poke at the idea of the Marlboro man that also deeply resonated with accepted notions of how masculinity was meant to be performed in Aotearoa/New Zealand. The goal of the campaign was to tie up the beer company with received notions of Pākehā (New Zealand European) ideals of masculinity. The image below shows how the advertising campaign presented these ideas with reference to what a Southern Man should eat, which sports he should enjoy, and broadly his attitude to the world. These posters were accompanied by a series of TV ads where a cosmology for the authentic Kiwi man was laid out.

Colin Meads could be said to epitomise older notions of rural New Zealand masculinity. The rumour goes that Meads, a highly decorated All Black, maintained his fitness by running up the side of hills with a sheep under each arm. Whether this ever happened isn’t important, but what it tells us about Pākehā notions of masculinity is. Here we have the perfect example of the Southern Man, connection with the land, physical work, and a love for rugby. It should be noted that Meads was not all that ‘southern’ – he lived in TeKuiti, a small Waikato town (for those outside Aotearoa/New Zealand, Waikato is a region on TeIka-a-Māui/North Island). The Southern Man ideal has run through much of New Zealand’s culture and not just advertising, as the Footroot flats comics and Barry Crump’s novels equally speak to these notions (Taika Waititi’s ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ is an adaption of Crump’s Wild Pork and Watercress).

Obviously, this advert is aiming to speak to a specific audience of beer drinkers, assumed by Speight’s to be men. Other beer companies have played with similar received notions of masculinity. Tui, another New Zealand beer company, have run adverts where rural ‘blokes’ who run out of gas for the BBQ decide to power it from the farts of a nearby cow. This is seen as a representation of the much lauded ‘Kiwi ingenuity’. Another example of the stoic, terse masculinity of what advertising companies imagine farmers to be is the advert Toyota ran in 1989 that sees a series of farm accidents with the farmer responding ‘bugger’ after each of these. A lot of this will feel familiar to Australian audiences as the ad crossed the Tasman in 1999.

Anthropology from McDonald’s?

In Aotearoa/New Zealand, McDonald’s semi-regularly introduces, then withdraws a product called the ‘Kiwi Burger’. Alongside the usual burger ingredients meat patty, cheese, tomato, lettuce, onion, etc. are beetroot and an egg (despite cultural shifts this is still pronounced ‘igg’). McDonald’s advert for the Kiwi Burger is considered a classic and well known to most Kiwis. It lists what Kiwis associate with themselves presented in the form of a song ending with the words ‘Kiwi burger it’s our tucker’. In the original version, thirty-years old now, the song drew on a safe list of national icons primarily geared towards Pākehā sensibilities such as rugby, hot pools, cricket, buzzy bees (the toy), with kia oras and “Māori haka” thrown in as a quick nod to the indigenous population, although Māori is pronounced in a way that would make many of us squirm today.

In their most recent iteration of this advert, McDonald’s marketing team have said there is a need to update the song in a way that reflects what it means to be a Kiwi today. The song written by two Māori musicians, Anika Moa and Troy Kingi, could easily be read as a way of a large company trying to profit from association with progressive notions of inclusivity and diversity, which it is. However, McDonald’s has also, albeit clumsily, mapped some of the changes in Aotearoa/New Zealand’s culture and demography. BBQ, rugby, references to the outdoors, sports, and pies remain in the lyrics. Culturally, they are still a key part of the general understanding of what it means to be a Kiwi. Other inclusions are a little more unusual. I am at a loss as to why the word monotone has been included in this new version of the song, and a little uncertain as to the inclusion of hot kai (food) and rainbows as they seem to be enjoyed almost universally.

The quick nods to Māori are slightly built on with the inclusion of more TeReo words Kauri, kumara, hongi, kapa haka and whanau. The 2020 version of the song also references Polynesian styles of dress (lavalava), Samoan ways of cooking (umu feeds), kilikiti (a Samoan form of cricket), biltong, vindaloo, kimchi, yum cha, and sushi – all acknowledgements to the non-Pākehā migrants that were excluded in the first iteration of the song.  South African, Polynesian, Indian and East Asian populations are all now being allowed identities outside of the official bi-cultural stance of the New Zealand state, which imagines itself to be born of an agreement between Māori and Pākehā in the singing of The Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. There is also the representation of Kiwis to the outside world as moral in their anti-nuclear stance, love of world peace, harmony, and protection of nature, a theme stressed repeatedly in its tourism and immigration campaigns.

Can we think of McDonald’s along with Anika Moa and Troy Kingi as having produced an accidental anthropological piece of work, here?

In some ways. The rewriting of the song demonstrates an understanding of cultural and demographic change in Aotearoa/New Zealand. According to the 2018 census, our population is increasingly diverse: 27.4% of the population were born overseas, and the proportion of non-Pākehā populations is growing. In Auckland, the country’s largest and most diverse city, the Pākehā population is a slim majority at 53.5%. The country’s most visited public event is the annual Auckland Lantern Festival that celebrates Chinese New Year, and the annual Polyfest celebrating Pacifica culture is also a major event. However, anthropology requires the decoding of myths and their meanings as much as it does just the presentation of change.

Changing myths?

Part of what makes advertising an interesting phenomenon for anthropologists is the dual role advertisers occupy. They are a reflection of the desires and accepted myths of a society, yet they also help shape and redesign those same desires and myths. Judith Williamson has gone so far as to say that advertising generates meaning in an increasingly secular, consumption focused world. This ability to generate meaning, she argues, is so strong that it has come to replace the function that religion and art once held.

We can think of how adverts dealing in notions of nationhood present culturally coded meaning through Barthes’ idea of myths. Barthes argues in his Mythologies that the cover of an addition of the ‘Paris Match’ magazine – featuring an African man saluting, presumably towards the French flag – presents a semiological system full of meaning. In this situation, Barthes argues, the signifier (an African man saluting) signifies the purposeful mix of ‘Frenchness’ and militarism. For Barthes, such magazine covers work to naturalise a wider social system supported by myths and to simplify reality to explicit statements of fact. Both Williamson and Barthes point out that ads invite us to see the world, and by extension, our own place in it in an ideologically charged way. For Barthes, a noteworthy myth is when the semiotic code is perceived as fact. It does not matter whether Meads ever ran up those hills carrying two sheep at once because the message that this is behaviour worth emulating had been conveyed regardless. That tale was didactic.

Just prior to the millennium, the sociologist Claudia Bell ended her Inventing New Zealand by noting how the myths that Pākehā constructed to make sense of their world were almost always recycled from the 19th Century and that upon entry into the 21st there was a need for a collective reimaging of how we understand Aotearoa/New Zealand. Bell would perhaps see some progress – the Southern Man returned to New Zealand screens in 2018, but this time his concern was with perfecting a routine for the first dance at his wedding. I would read this as an acknowledgement that, as Bell suggested, the myths Aotearoa/New Zealand has traditionally used to structure its identity are having to be rethought as the signified has become too detached from the signifier. What the new stories we Kiwis will tell to make sense of our place in the world is unclear, as they are constantly emerging. Framing these ideas through older forms of advertising, however, suggests that change will still be locked in place with continuity.

[Image of Aoraki/Mount Cook is taken by Clair Bizhao Zhang.]

[The Speight’s Southern Man advertising poster is sourced from Te Ara the encyclopaedia of New Zealand.]

[Image of the original Kiwi Burger ad is sourced from NZ Herald.]

[Image of the new Kiwi Burger ad lyrics is sourced from NZ Herald.]

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