Toppling NZ's grand claims

GRANT MILLER
Last updated 12:00 26/11/2012

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OPINION: Marketing, I suppose, is meant to highlight the best characteristics of a product to help establish or reinforce a brand or reputation.

Most people understand that advertising is about creating and enhancing desire, pulling a heartstring or two and selling a concept.

The collision with truth and integrity is where things can get interesting.

New Zealand claims to be "100% Pure".

Perfection is a high standard, so it is clever or fortunate that we stay vague about where exactly we're free of contamination. Completely free, absolutely free - not even a minuscule detectable level of impurity, you understand.

Despite images of greenery and waterfalls or whatever that accompany the slogan, we are apparently not really meant to infer New Zealand is "clean and green" and our environment is unspoilt. Rather, Tourism New Zealand argues the tourism experience here is pure New Zealand, or something.

The campaign is of course meant to result in tourists coming to see our beautiful country, and we are told it has worked. Many have no issue with the marketing and see no great gap between the advertising and reality.

But the people behind the campaign surely concede it invites scrutiny of our environmental record. They must also know it is impossible for us to be blameless there. Making a grand claim, even a vague one, practically begs people to shoot it down.

So it is hardly startling that a critique should appear in the New York Times.

What is worrying is that we have been happy to purvey a twisted narrative.

Being a little indistinct about the precise location of our perfect purity might seem like genius to marketing types, but - whatever the territory - the claim is arrogant and misplaced. Pin it anywhere in particular and we must come up short of meeting the standard.

What is also odd is that people are prepared to argue it is in our nation's interests to tell citizens they should not speak out against obvious nonsense.

We must not question, we must not think, we must not ask people to back up their words with evidence - we should maintain a strange line of reasoning if it is to our economic advantage.

Well, I do not accept it is to our long-term advantage to promote nonsense, and - even if there is a compelling economic case - integrity is more important.

It is also a bad look for any marketing person to lecture anyone else about motives behind messages.

On Saturday, the Manawatu Standard reported Massey University environmental scientist Mike Joy was accused of tourism industry "sabotage".

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Dr Joy had drawn attention to the fictional nature of our country's "clean and green" image.

The leaked emails of Saunders Unsworth co-founder Mark Unsworth in response are fascinating.

"Letting your ego run riot worldwide in the manner you did can only lead to lower levels of inbound tourism. You may not care given your tenure in a nice comfy university lounge, but to others this affects income and jobs," Mr Unsworth wrote.

Inbound tourism, income, jobs... but does the end justify the means?

Talk of Dr Joy being a traitor is silly given that 12-year-old pupils in Palmerston North are capable of coming to the same conclusion he has - that environmental purity has not been achieved in this nation. Nor has it been achieved in any nation, but New Zealand set itself up for a fall by being loose with its language.

Mr Unsworth was plainly upset Dr Joy dared embarrass the country by questioning a flawed message.

But the negative publicity was inevitable.

One way to reduce the chances of being hurt by negative publicity is not to say preposterous things in the first place.

Grant Miller is the Manawatu Standard's head of content and a politics junkie.

- Manawatu Standard

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