We love to see ourselves.

25 Oct

The latest NZTA Don’t Drink & Drive commercial is copping a lot of flak. I think it’s all terribly unfair.

Agreed, the voice over sounds strangely like the Beached Az whale. The dialogue, a little Bro’town. The mood, uncomfortably sombre, like the seconds before a violent Once Were Warriors bar brawl. The art direction takes its cues from low budget New Zealand cinema, but weren’t we all celebrating those things when Taika Waititi released Boy last year?

A mixed bag of references, but one thing we can learn from them all is that we are completely fascinated with ourselves. In a country like New Zealand, where for so long so much of the cultural product we consumed was created overseas, or carefully designed to look and sound like it, the novelty of seeing ourselves on screen is even more pronounced.

Even before the screen, we were naturally compelled to this strange self-indulgent behaviour. This is the Makapansgat Pebble, considered the first ever manport (an impressive 2.9 million years ago). This pebble was discovered miles from the rock source of the pebble itself. Some pre-human beast saw the face in this anthropomorphic chunk of earth and decided it was remarkable enough to take along for the ride.

The same animal compulsion that led one thought-leading australopithecine to lug a pebble across South Africa has been a driving force in the development of tools that enable us to better see ourselves, both physically and symbolically. Maybe I’m getting over-excited here, but I’m going to suggest it’s also the force that perpetuates the human need to create and experience art, literature, theatre, cinema, and so on. Just like that pebble, when we turn on the television, we see ourselves. And that’s half of the reason humans keep doing it.

(The other half is they’re actually incredibly boring with nothing more valuable to contribute to the earth in the precious, dwindling time they have left on it. But that’s a whole other, much angrier blog post.)

New Zealand is a young nation, there’s very little that truly sets us apart from our near, dear Australian neighbours. But it’s clear our peace of minds requires us to qualify the difference. Long before Peter Jackson was making world-leading cinema, long before Flight of the Conchords, even before Neil Finn wrote Don’t Dream It’s Over, advertising was already busy trying to carve a distinctly New Zealand face in the metaphorical rock. Dare I say, our cultural identity, to an extent, was forged by the Speights Southern Man, by the Mainland Cheese Guys, by Toyota – a Japanese car manufacturer.

(Great. In the search for the Len Potts BNZ ads of old, I wound up discovering a local documentary that eloquently sums up my entire argument. Fuck you, YouTube.)

It’s fair to say that in recent years the old ‘You’re a Kiwi’ line has worn thin. It’s a widely accepted fact in creative circles that the last good Kiwivertising spot was this one for L&P:

So if we’re unable to fall back on those old worn cliches, where do we go when we need to tug on the national heartstrings? Remember, this isn’t cinema, where we have the luxury of an indulgent set-up. We’ve got 30 seconds, or maybe 15 seconds if our client is especially “media-focused”, to tell what poses to be a complicated story.

Well, that’s the good news. Because now that we’re a nation with some cultural product behind us (whether it be as innocuous as Beached Az, as damning as Once Were Warriors, as astute as Bro’town, or as enchanting as Boy), our cultural identity has been adjusted, or at least filled out, to be a little closer to the truth.

Now that advertising isn’t the only thing informing our national identity, there is an expanded palette of shared experiences, values and dialects for us as creatives to draw upon.

Which finally brings me around to my point. I’m worn out on brands that present Pakeha New Zealanders as ‘typical Kiwis’. It’s a dangerous territory to be in, the moment you take a face and apply to it the term ‘average’ or ‘normal’. I’m not even referring to the inherent racism (as if I care about that shit, I’m in advertising). I’m talking plain old business language here. Can John Saifiti see himself in John Smith? Probably not. It’s bad advertising.

There’s a not-even-that-subtle difference between casting a particular character for comic or dramatic purposes. There are, after all, some stories that only John Smith can tell.

Which is precisely the reason I love the new LTNZ ad. The problem: Too many Pacific Island kids are drinking and driving. We already know the cultural effect advertising, at its best, can have. We can use it to solve a social problem. What we need to do is hold the mirror up. Show them what a hero looks look to the target audience. Have the message come from someone they can relate to.

Remember, we’re not trying to tell people off. They haven’t done anything wrong yet. We’re just equipping them with the tools they need to make the right decision when the opportunity arises.

In the case of the NZTA Don’t Drink & Drive ad, we’re talking to Pacific Island kids. So why wouldn’t we show them Pacific Island kids?

After all, I’m sure I’m not the only person here who kind of enjoys this commercial:


One Response to “We love to see ourselves.”


  1. Speak up, or forever hold your ghost chips: new NZTA campaign changes tack on drink-driving message—UPDATED :: StopPress :: Breaking news from New Zealand Marketing magazine - January 27, 2012

    […] which is much more reminiscent of Boy than the Southern Man, has been very well-received. And, as this blog post says, it’s another example of how Kiwis love to see themselves on screen—and how that’s […]

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