Air New Zealand kills off mascot Rico

RICO: Strangely sleazy Air New Zealand muppet mascot.
RICO: Strangely sleazy Air New Zealand muppet mascot.

Air New Zealand's controversial puppet mascot Rico has been killed off in one final extravagant piece of viral marketing for the national airline.

The wise-cracking, foreign furr-ball regailed 4.5 million YouTube watchers and 48,000 Facebook followers with stories about his love for Air New Zealand and its new SkyCouch seats, often using sexual innuendo and chats with B-grade celebrities to get his message across.

Rico interviewed Hollywood bad-girl Lindsay Lohan while she was serving home detention on a theft conviction, made a rap video with hip-hop superstar Snoop Dogg and shot the breeze with former Bay Watch star David Hasselhoff.

The campaign was developed by the airline in conjunction with the Clemenger Group of advertising agencies, but rumours abound that that relationship may soon end.

Air New Zealand has a strong internal marketing department and is not averse to dishing out advertising work on a project by project basis.

Ad agency Barnes, Catmur and Friends' creative director Paul Catmur said he thought the online strategy had helped Air New Zealand break into international markets without spending huge amounts on media placement, although seeding YouTube clips wasn't free.

"I just personally would've liked it to have been something other than Rico to have executed that strategy,'' he said.

"I am a New Zealander, despite my accent, and I didn't feel that he did a great job of representing our country, and I don't know why a South American rat had to be used as an example of a New Zealand persona."

Alex Erasmus, an online specialist with Bullet PR, said Rico was good fun and got people talking, but the character was "a bit off brand, and, as a result, never had genuine longevity".

The company hasn't finished milking Rico's popularity yet: it has designed a Hasbro-backed online Cluedo game for fans centred around finding which celebrity murdered the mascot at his Los Angeles mansion.

TBWA ad agency chief executive David Walden also recognised Rico had ruffled some feathers but believed advertisers should be brave enough to take risks.

"It was an online campaign that lived on the web so therefore it had a bit more of a younger audience than free-to-air television audience that normally Air New Zealand engages with,'' said Walden.

"Too few New Zealand advertisers are prepared to stick their neck out, they should be applauded for doing that, but if the research has told them it's not working then they've orchestrated an elegant exit and that's all good."