Paul Ford November 25, 2008

White Out Wipe Out

I think some of the post-slogan reaction has been a little over the top

The greatest controversy in Kiwi cricket this week is not whether Andy Moles is the right man for the NZ coaching job, the pros and cons of Brendon McCullum batting (and under-performing) at No. 5, nor is it our team’s ability to play two good days of Test cricket but not four, nor is it which seamer to bench for Adelaide.

Nope, none of the above. In fact it’s a marketing idea, now canned, which would have seen Dunedin embracing the slogan “It’s All White Here” for the upcoming New Zealand vs West Indies Test match (December 11-15). The idea was nothing to do with the Ku Klux Klan or Romper Stomper but a cricket take on a popular approach to marketing rugby here in New Zealand. Under the “Black Out” fans are encouraged to wear black if they are going along to support the All Blacks.

For the Dunedin cricket Test, the idea was a to inspire a “White Out” with everyone donning their finest lab coats, sheep suits, Playboy bunny costumes, bridal gowns, Elvis flares, stormtrooper kits, nurses’ uniforms and cream tuxedos. Harmless – and despite the axing of the official campaign, students all over the South Island should plough on regardless and embrace the idea.

By virtue of the deranged decision-making by the local government bureaucrats involved, it ironically threatened to become a sliver of accidental genius and one of the most successful marketing campaigns for Test cricket in recent years. Never before has the marketing of one match attracted so much attention outside the province of Otago.

Was this a brilliant example of “controversy marketing”? Not merely a gimmick, but a risky move with full follow-through that was undertaken to spark PR for Test cricket that money couldn’t buy? If so, it was a fortnight early: it should have been unleashed once the West Indies were here – then the controversy would have stood a better chance of translating into eyeballs.

I think some of the post-slogan reaction has been a little over the top. Speculation that the West Indies would boycott the match would not just be sad if true, but utter madness. Let’s recognise it for what it was: an ill-advised marketing tagline, devised in a cocoon in the deep south of New Zealand. That sense of perspective was adopted by the West Indies coach John Dyson when he arrived in New Zealand this week: “We've been notified of it but we're concerned with cricket. We just want to play the game.” Good man.

A little bit of wider audience-testing might not have gone astray, and would have highlighted the potential for it to be misinterpreted. However, whether through poor judgement or reckless risk-taking, that didn’t happen. To the nation’s credit, as soon as it was revealed in public, it was questioned and hammered from all sides.

The most foolish response was the initial one from the Dunedin City Council, as it continued to deny even the merest possibility of racial overtones “between the lines” of the campaign. There was no intent, but it was poor judgement to not admit there was a degree of ambivalence in the words. As Richard Boock put it succinctly in the Sunday Star-Times: “It might have even been funny had officials reacted with enough alacrity to dismiss the idea as an unfortunate gaffe when they had the chance last week.” Offence was being taken, whether the Mayor of Dunedin liked it or not, and it would have been a good time to be contrite.

On Saturday night, NZ Cricket’s new public affairs man issued yet another apology to appease the West Indies and its players with NZC CEO Justin Vaughan saying: “I appreciate that it had the potential to be misinterpreted, and I apologise to the West Indies players and officials for any offence taken – none was intended.”

The fact is that the West Indies are a hugely popular side when visiting New Zealand – some of the Beige Brigade’s best cricketing days have been on the bank watching New Zealand thump the men from the Caribbean. It would be a terrible shame for any lingering discontent from a misguided council campaign to overshadow the summer tour, but it will provide a new obsession for the media, rather than banging on about the Stanford-filled pay packets of the West Indies players. One thing is for sure, New Zealand’s cricketing administrators will be walking on eggshells when Chris Gayle, his sunglasses, and his team are here. Look out for some awkward moments – and hysterical headlines.

Paul Ford is a co-founder of the Beige Brigade. He tweets here