The offensive ads may have been confined to the annals of history (ie: YouTube), but the 100-plus-year-old cordial is still around, and still wrong on many levels.
Kia ora — isn’t it a lovely word? It reminds me of my hometown and Suzy Cato and perky Air New Zealand flight attendants. It’s informal but sounds a lot nicer than ‘g’day mate’, and it’s a word you’re only likely to hear 4.000 kilometres south of the equator, which is why I was a little surprised to see it plastered on a bottle of colourful goo in a small town supermarket in rural Ireland.
Kia ora, as it turns out, is not just a Māori greeting and expression of friendship but a brand of cordial (or squash as it’s known here) owned by a small outfit you might have heard of called Coca-Cola. It comes in blackcurrant and orange flavours, the latter of which glowed so obnoxiously from the shelf I had to take a bottle home and taste it. It was sweet and sickly and somewhat fruit-adjacent without actually tasting like any particular fruit. It had something called glycerol esters of wood rosins in it, which was alarming.
I wanted to know what Coca-Cola was doing selling New Zealand greeting-themed juice. But first, the history.
In 1903, a man called Arthur Gasquoine created a lemon cordial and called it Kia-Ora. It seems he was inspired by the literal translation of kia ora — to wish someone good health and wellness, and, in keeping with the traditions of white people, had no problem whatsoever taking a chunk of Māori culture and using it for his own benefit.
To make matters worse, Mr Gasquoine was an Australian.
Shortly after its inception, Aussie Arthur G sold the Kia-Ora brand to the Dixon family of Victoria, but it wasn’t until Kia-Ora was launched in Great Britain that the product really took off. From its humble beginnings as a lemon squash, Kia-Ora expanded to include multiple drink flavours, and in the 1940s diversified to include tinned soup, spaghetti and baked beans. Unfortunately, the undisputed highlight of the latter move was Kia-Ora home economist Anne Dixon’s depraved spaghetti and baked bean recipes. By the 1960s, the Australian arm of Kia-Ora had been bought out by Campbell’s, and Kia-Ora’s Lent-friendly Easter eggs in spaghetti nests tragically became a thing of the past.
Meanwhile, though, the popularity of Kia-Ora in the UK continued to soar. Posters featured smiling white children at the beach and tennis club secretaries lauding the “healthful goodness” of the drink. Meanwhile, the company also took up the opportunity to be very racist whenever the subjects of the posters were black or brown.
And then there were the TV ads created between the early and late 1980s, which were still getting airtime well into the 1990s when really, everyone should’ve known better. The adverts featured a black, straw hat-wearing child in a vaguely Caribbean setting, leading a pack of crows representing such brazen stereotypes seemingly copied directly from the racist disaster that was Disney’s Dumbo.
Karma appears to have caught up with Kia-Ora. These days, Coca-Cola has discontinued all but two Kia-Ora cordials (the aforementioned sugar-free orange and blackcurrant) and doesn’t appear to advertise on TV, online or anywhere else. The television ads of old were so famously awful that an English Labour MP recently got in trouble for sharing one in a WhatsApp group. Apart from a few nostalgic boomers in the deep recesses of internet message boards, most people seem to remember Kia-Ora as “that juice with the messed up ads”.
As unpopular as Kia-Ora is today, a few uncomfortable points remain.
Māori children were forcibly banned from using the word kia ora (and any other te reo) in schools nationwide in 1903, the exact same year a white man was able to use the word to advertise a drink.
Kia-Ora’s advertorial history relied heavily on racist stereotyping of black people, purely because the word sounded vaguely exotic to some London-based executive.
Everyone who was an English or Irish child of the 1980s thinks kia ora is pronounced the same way Don Brash would pronounce it if he weren’t so afraid of the Māori language.
Kia-Ora is barely surviving as a brand and, inexplicably, still using a picture of a cartoon crow on its labels.
Given the above, I wondered if Coke had given any thought to calling Kia-Ora something other than Kia-Ora. Here’s what they said:
“The Coca-Cola Company acquired the Cadbury Schweppes soft drinks brands in a deal concluded in 1998. The Kia-Ora brand was part of this brand portfolio. There has been limited marketing investment in the brand since that time. There are no plans to make any changes to the branding or the beverage at this time.”
In short, Kia-Ora will remain Kia-Ora because a company worth $270 billion cannot be arsed changing it.
I’m no marketing expert, but I managed to think of some alternatives pretty quickly.
- Ireland’s Second or Third Favourite Concentrated Low-Calorie Orange Flavour Soft Drink With Sweeteners
- This Has Something Called Glycerol Esters of Wood Rosins In It – Hope You’re Cool With That
- Same Juice But Not Racist Any More
New Zealanders are pretty creative folk, perhaps we could organise some sort of national poll to choose a new name, Boaty McBoatface-style? The folks at Coca-Cola seem to be stuck for resources at the minute, they need all the help they can get.
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