NZRU backs Telecom after abstinence saga

The New Zealand Rugby Union is standing by sponsor Telecom despite the company's failed abstinence campaign.

Telecom this morning pulled the pin on the Backing Black advertising push, which called on fans to abstain from sex during the Rugby World Cup and wear black rubber rings to show their support.

The marketing push was to have been fronted by former All Blacks captain Sean Fitzpatrick, with coach Graham Henry having earlier been considered to front the campaign.

NZRU chief executive Steve Tew said the organisation's view didn't change despite the failure.

"Telecom and Backing Black are great supporters of the All Blacks and put a lot of creativity and innovation into getting fans involved," Tew said.

"We respect Telecom's decision to listen to fans, respond to feedback, and withdraw the campaign."

Tew said he had no doubt that Telecom would continue to work with the NZRU on interesting ways to rally and cement support for the All Blacks.

All Blacks coach Graham Henry echoed the sentiments when asked about the campaign in Port Elizabeth.

"I think I should abstain from talking about that. All I can say is that Telecom have been an outstanding supporter of the All Blacks for a long time and it's a pity this hasn't worked out."

Earlier today Telecom's retail boss Alan Gourdie apologised for offending Kiwis with the idea.

"We misjudged public feeling, which in reaction to yesterday's partial revelations in the news media was overwhelmingly negative," Gourdie said.

"No excuses. We caused offence to some people, and for that we apologise."

Saatchi & Saatchi, the high-profile advertising company responsible for the concept and delivery of the campaign, refused to comment today.

Gourdie said New Zealanders' passion for the All Blacks was not something to be taken lightly.

The campaign was designed with the best of intentions in an attempt to be humorous and rally All Blacks support, "but we got it wrong".

Despite ditching the campaign, he said Telecom continued to support the All Blacks, "the best rugby team in the world", 100 percent.

"Full credit to the opposition, we listened to your views, and we have acted quickly to change our game plan."

A Telecom spokesman would not comment on what the company would do with the campaign's promotional material, including rubber rings and posters, but said "it would be taken care of".

Gourdie also apologised to Telecom staff in an email, which was leaked earlier today.

"It's been a torrid 24 hours in the glare of public spotlight, as well as in that of our own team's views and opinions. Nothing like a full and frank exchange of views!" he said.

"What the Telecom team thinks is very, very important to me and even if our people were split 50/50 for and against, that's still half of our workmates who weren't happy with it.

"That's not enough for me, and I give you all my personal apology for the angst or embarrassment this has caused."

Telecom had come under increased pressure from All Blacks fans to pull the pin on the project, with talkback lines and internet comment boards clogged with people speaking out, including some who called on Telecom customers to cancel their accounts.

A telco staffer today said, "I too am disgusted at this ridiculous ad, already in my call centre some staff have had to field calls from angry customers who want to disconnect all services".

"I just wish the marketing [department] had run a poll with the staff to see what they thought before rolling the campaign out - everyone would have been against it.

"Makes me want to work elsewhere, everyone is so embarrassed about it."


Telecom's flip-flop comes after global Saatchi & Saatchi boss Kevin Roberts earlier defended the ads.

US-based Roberts - a Telecom board member and former New Zealand Rugby Union board member - said he supported Backing Black.

"The campaign is tongue-in-cheek, fun, and a light-hearted way to get rugby people, and all New Zealanders, talking about the RWC and letting them share their support for the ABs in an authentic NZ way," Roberts said in an email.

"It's not rocket science . . . it is entertaining, provocative, and good natured. I think it will appeal to true rugby loving heartland supporters."

Roberts added in the email: "Do your duty and ... Abstain For the Game!"

The All Blacks distanced themselves from the campaign as they prepared for Sunday's Tri-Nations test against the Springboks in Port Elizabeth.

Assistant coach Steve Hansen was quizzed about the promotional gimmick at a press briefing and simply responded: "Please, let's not go there."


Fans were more outspoken, flooding Backing Black's official Facebook site with messages of disgust.

Chad Preece wrote: "Go ABs. Goodbye Telecom. Might I suggest that your marketing department stops hanging out with their counterparts at Nike and Adidas."

Bob Smith opined: "Maybe Telecom used the same dorks that designed their amazing logo to come up with this campaign."

Prime Minister John Key said the campaign was evidence not all advertising dollars were well spent.

"I think it's meant as a light-hearted joke."

There would be several similar sideline issues that arose throughout the World Cup, Key said.

"The reality is when the teams turn up in New Zealand, the focus is hopefully going to be on two things: a great display of rugby and showcasing New Zealand to the rest of the world."


It is understood Backing Black's call for sexual abstinence was to have been launched nationwide on Sunday with simultaneous TV commercials to be broadcast in the evening.

A source said the advertising campaign would be "bright and bold" including posters, billboards and adverts emblazoned onto buses.

During the campaign's planning stage, one idea considered was placing posters at men's urinals urging men to "Think of your Mum in a bikini ... Abstain for the All Blacks".

Advertising executives also considered placing cold showers outside popular bars to show that publicans were committed to hosing down anyone tempted to break their vow of chastity.


Meanwhile, overseas voices also joined the chorus against the campaign.

"Oh dear. The Kiwis are so fearful of another failed World Cup they have bizarrely decided that a national sex ban will somehow get them there," Australia's Daily Telegraph said.

"Spooked by failed World Cup after failed World Cup", former All Blacks captain Sean Fitzpatrick has become the frontman, the paper said.

"What a baaaaaaaa-d campaign."

In the Washington Post, Matt Brooks wrote New Zealanders "have a bit of an inferiority complex".

"And who wouldn't when you're a small island nation nearly falling off the bottom of the globe that rarely gets mentioned outside of a sentence that also includes England or Australia?"

"Nevertheless, the Kiwis are a proud people who are conscious of their global image.

 "It's no wonder some citizens objected", he said.

The campaign also made headlines in Britain's Telegraph, the Jakarta Globe, and other American and Australian publications.