The meme sent out by share broker Forsyth Barr to its clients.

The brokers, the Ardern attack ‘joke’, and the spectre of a bad-meme election

A leaked email from prominent share broking firm Forsyth Barr perpetuates a tediously old-fashioned idea of the way people think – and it isn’t even salvaged by wit or originality, writes business editor Maria Slade.

Investment manager Forsyth Barr’s daily market commentary came with a seasonal extra on November 1. Atop the dull recital of share prices and interest rates was a meme of an unflattering image of a grimacing prime minister with the words, “I bought a Jacinda Ardern mask for Hallowe’en. When kids come to my door I’m going to take their candy and give it to the kids that are too lazy to Trick or Treat!” One of the firm’s equities traders had sent it to his clients and contacts as a morning funny along with the markets update quipping, “this is genius”.

Firstly, it isn’t. A quick Google search reveals it’s a cut-and-paste from old Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders memes.

The Forsyth Barr meme is a rip off of old US political content

Much more interesting is the rare glimpse it provides into what many are thinking. That the trader deemed it appropriate content for a bulk email illustrates, presumably, the audience he believes he is communicating with.

Certainly the firm’s top brass seemed unperturbed. Executive director Darren Manning was “sorry-not-sorry” in his reply to The Spinoff’s inquiry about whether it was befitting. “As per the disclaimer at the bottom, the email is a private communication to some of Forsyth Barr’s wholesale clients, as opposed to the general/wider market. The meme contained in it was not created by Forsyth Barr, please accept our apologies for any offence caused,” he wrote.

Forsyth Barr is a big fish. You will know the company best as naming sponsor of Dunedin’s hallowed Forsyth Barr Stadium, the rights for which it pays a reported $500k a year. Founded in Dunedin in 1936 and now with 21 offices around the country, the privately owned firm hails from dyed-in-the-wool Establishment stock. Leadership doesn’t come much whiter and maler than its board, chaired by former Rugby World Cup-winning All Black captain David Kirk, with the exception of lone female director Tina Symmans.

The firm’s confidence that its tribe would laugh at the in-joke shows voter stereotypes are alive and well. National’s supporters are share brokers and farmers who would sooner put pins in their eyes than vote red, while Labour’s core base are working people and chardonnay socialists. But whether you’re a investment firm or a trade union, if you’re distributing a meme having a go at the stereotypical idea of the “other side”, at the very least make sure it’s not unoriginal and unfunny.

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National’s social media team is busy creating content satirising Labour.

The 2020 election may still be as long as a year away but already it is shaping up as the war of the memes. National has skilled operatives churning out a stream of clickable content and that will assuredly gather pace as the campaign nears. Labour may not have engaged the same resources, but on social media cash is not always king. Popularity breeds yet more approval. Take Jacinda Ardern’s tally of 672,000 likes on Facebook compared with National leader Simon Bridges’ 44,000, for example.

The ideological divide isn’t, however, absolute. There are swing voters who don’t see the world as just red or blue, and millennial and gen Y voters are increasingly demanding action over the message of rising inequality, irrespective of which party they might back. Social media is the great leveller, and wiser heads at Forsyth Barr might be asking whether the Hallowe’en effort, which would be more at home on a gutter blog, is a good idea. Such things can come across as petty and irrelevant, especially if they’re not saved by humour.

But maybe I’m getting them wrong. Maybe Forsyth Barr isn’t stuck in such an old-fashioned mindset. As the 2020 election campaign gears up I will look forward to more leaked memes from them poking fun across the board. Let’s hope, at least, that the quality of the satire and debate improves.


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