As We Would Like The World To See Us: But repeated contamination scandals and a growing international awareness that all is not well in the New Zealand environment is causing more and more people to doubt Tourism NZ's staggeringly successful slogan. New Zealanders must now decide whether they wish to live up to, or abandon, the promise that has, for better or for worse, branded their nation.
NEW ZEALAND was barely half-a-century old when it became a “Brand State”. Our first government elected under (nearly) universal male suffrage – the Liberal Government of 1891 – had, within just a few years of taking office, earned New Zealand an international reputation for being “the social laboratory of the world”.
The bitter struggles between Capital and Labour that were tearing the societies of the Old and New Worlds’ apart at the turn of the Nineteenth Century seemed to have been tamed in New Zealand by the passing of the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act. And, while the women of Great Britain and the United States were staging massive demonstrations in favour of women’s suffrage, New Zealand women were already marching to the polling booths.
The potency of New Zealand’s “progressive” brand was only enhanced by the radical reforms of the First Labour Government. So much so that, well into the 1950s, the publishers of encyclopaedias were still accepting introductions to the entry on New Zealand like this one, from the 1958 Edition of the Richards Topical Encyclopaedia:
“The World’s ‘Model Nation’: How Little New Zealand, Starting Her Career amid Wars and Many Money Problems, Built Up for Herself a Government So Sound and Humane that She Came to Be Called the Best-Governed Nation in the World.”
As The World Used To See Us: New Zealand in 1958 - A "Model Nation".
Between 1984 and 1999 there was a deeply cynical attempt on the part of the right-wing promoters of the neoliberal economic “reforms” responsible for dismantling the progressive achievements of earlier generations of New Zealanders, to appropriate that “model nation” brand.
To no avail. People from other lands looked at New Zealand and saw the same destructive economic forces at work – albeit in more extreme form – that had disfigured their own societies. From being the little nation that marched to the beat of a different, more “humane”, drummer, New Zealand had fallen into the same, sad, neoliberal lock-step as the rest of the world.
But then, miraculously, in 1999, New Zealand got a second chance.
Commissioned to come up with a new slogan for Tourism NZ, the Saatchi ad agency boss, Alan Morden, came up with “100% Pure New Zealand”. Everyone who heard it sensed they were on to a winner.
Two years later, just a fortnight before Christmas 2001, things got even better.
Into a world still reeling from the terrible events of 9/11 came the first of Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and people saw a landscape of unbelievable beauty. In this, the most far-flung tourist destination on the planet, God seemed to have hidden the very last, most lovely jewel of his creation.
Overnight, “100% Pure New Zealand” ceased to be merely the advertising slogan of Tourism NZ and became the motto of a “Brand State”.
Almost accidentally, New Zealanders found themselves bound to meet the near impossible challenge of 100% purity. But they could not turn back, because already the magic of the motto was transforming the expectations of New Zealand’s customers.
The global consumer reads the name “New Zealand” on a label and, instantly, their minds are filled with the imagery of snow-capped peaks, sparkling rivers and streams, unspoiled beaches and endless vistas of deep green pastureland. Surely, they say, the food and beverages from such a land must be the purest, the safest, the very best in the whole world! It is difficult to imagine a perception more likely to clear the shelves of the world’s supermarkets for New Zealand’s agricultural exports.
But the magic works in other ways for New Zealand. Purity, if it is to go on selling our exports, must be more than a rhetorical flourish – it has to be real. Our rivers and streams must be clean all the way from the mountains to the sea. Our green pasturelands must leave no chemical residues in our food. The milk from our free-ranging, grass-chewing cows, and the products derived from their milk, must, just like the slogan, be 100% pure – not contaminated by botulism.
Fonterra’s latest scandal has revealed, in the most dramatic fashion, the double-edged nature of all magical incantations. We know now that our 100% Pure designation can just as easily prove a curse as a blessing.
We stand now at a fork in the road. One way leads us to a future of reduced expectations. To a New Zealand no longer described as 100% Pure: where open-cast mines disfigure our conservation lands; deep sea oil coats our coasts; and cow-shit pours into our poisoned rivers and streams.
The other way leads to a New Zealand that dares to live up to its promises. To a future where intelligence and creativity are enthroned as our culture’s sovereign lords. And where the purity of our environment is matched only by the purity of our purpose.
A “Model Nation” again.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 13 August 2013.