The man behind the NRL’s controversial revamp of the Simply The Best advertising campaign insists the game is not trying to make a political statement on Indigenous issues or marriage equality.
NRL chief commercial officer Andrew Abdo was under heavy attack on Tuesday over the new campaign, which re-positions Tina Turner’s iconic song as rugby league’s anthem 30 years after she became the face and big spiky hair of the code.
Specifically, critics have said the campaign tries too hard to be politically correct, slamming the appearance of Indigenous player Latrell Mitchell draped in the Aboriginal flag and an image of a kiss between couple Karina Brown and Vanessa Foliaki after they had played on rival teams in a women’s State of Origin match.
Many fans were also outraged at the brief appearance of Macklemore, the US rapper who performed Same Love at the 2017 grand final as debate raged around the same-sex marriage plebiscite.
“We’re not forcing anyone to believe in one thing or another,” Abdo said. “Those events have happened. Latrell is a superstar for us, Macklemore performed at the grand final in a moment we were really proud of. That brought our fans together and his performance was great.
"It’s not ticking a box. It’s genuine and authentic because we are picking out moments — good and bad — regardless of what your opinion is. We’re just sharing moments as they unfolded.
“This campaign is not intended to be political. It’s a showcase of our history; our people, our events that shaped where we are today. The intent of the campaign is to embrace what’s happened in the last 30 years, but also to give a nostalgic feeling for people who are new to the game to understand the moments that have mattered so they can feel part of it.”
Abdo, who is considered a future NRL chief executive and has a huge supporter in ARLC chairman Peter V’landys, has been working tirelessly on the campaign.
He consulted many stakeholders, including a small group of media representatives that included this journalist, who were asked to name their defining moments and images over the last 30 years.
Abdo stressed the two-minute ad was merely part of a broader campaign, with some of the shorter adverts to focus on the footy as well as documentaries about the original advertisement.
He also said the NRL had not received a directive from News Corp about removing a reference to the Super League war. In the two-minute ad that was shown earlier this week, a TV newsreader is heard saying: “And Super League tears the game apart”.
“There has been no directive from anyone to adjust it,” Abdo said. “But if the intent of the campaign is to be positive and showcase the game and some people feel isolated, we will adjust and listen to our fans. If we think something isn’t working, we will change it — but that is our decision.”
It will be interesting to see if the line stays in when it’s aired at the season launch in Sydney on Thursday night.
There are three certainties in rugby league: people will bag referees; they will bag the NSW halfback; and they will bag the TV campaign.
Personally, I thought the advertisement was good, although the elements around Mitchell and the same-sex marriage endorsement felt laboured and forced. The end of the world as we know it?
If people are getting bent out of shape about rugby league being a game for all, instead of a game for some, maybe it’s time for some perspective.
Super League changed the game forever — but it survived. The war showed the resilience of the code and its people and it shouldn’t be forgotten.
John Quayle, the man behind the ARL’s first campaigns with Turner, was too smart to comment on the revamped version when contacted on Tuesday.
When word started to leak about the first campaign in 1989 featuring Turner’s What You Get Is What You See, he was contacted by leading rugby league reporter Peter “Chippy” Frilingos.
“Your job is on the line here,” he told him.
Indeed, Rex Mossop had already phoned chairman Ken Arthurson and asked, “Tell me it’s not true: you have an Afro-American grandmother about to become the face of the game?"
For a moment, Arthurson and other jittery board members wanted the ad pulled despite the great expense to make it.
A few days later, Frilingos gave Quayle the thumbs up as the ad was revealed on the big screen at the Sydney Football Stadium for the first time.
In the weeks and months that followed, not a single negative phone call or letter came into the ARL’s offices in Phillip Street. It won international advertising awards.
The only negative word, Quayle has said before, came from Mike Willesee when he was interviewed on A Current Affair.
“I only wish my sport of Aussie Rules had come up with it first,” Willessee said.
What about Tina, who is now 80 and will celebrate the 30th anniversary of Simply The Best from afar?
“We showed the ad to Roger Davis, her manager, and to Tina as well,” Abdo said. “And she was thrilled.”