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MediaMarch 29, 2023

Behind the scenes of the $4m ‘white saviour’ Corrections ads banned by the ASA


A pricy ad campaign from one of New Zealand’s top agencies attracted hard critiques from a top Māori creative. Now the Advertising Standards Authority has censured some for ‘problematic’ content.

The campaign was meant to function as a kind of cultural reset – a way of moving on from perceptions that the prison system is inherently racist, and that the role of a corrections officer is in part to reinforce that societal inequity. One ad features a tamariki Māori speaking down the barrel of the camera. “I already knew Dad had been to prison. Mum told me,” he says, haltingly. He gesticulates over his shoulder at a blurry Pākehā figure. “It’s all thanks to him that Dad’s got a good job now.”

The Advertising Standards Authority has upheld three complaints which cited parts of the campaign as failing the advertiser’s duty around social responsibility. In a strongly-worded critique, the ASA said that specific advertisement portrayed “an obvious and awkward power imbalance”. It criticised multiple advertisements in the series, describing a former prisoner character in one as “demure, hesitant and ultimately forced to appear grateful the officer chose not to disclose his past in front of his child.”

The ASA complaints board described it as “problematic to take this power differential and overlay a racial stereotype of a Pākehā in the position of power and the Māori character as shamed and submissive. The Board saw no reason why this stereotype needed to be reinforced in order to convey the Advertiser’s message.”

The ASA ruling means the advertisements can no longer be “shown in their current form”. Despite that, they remain live on YouTube. The ads form part of a $3.85m campaign to recruit new corrections officers, which is explicitly meant to connect to the department’s five year “Hōkai Rangi” strategy. This aims to express the Department of Corrections’ “commitment to delivering great outcomes with and for Māori in our care”. 

However the ASA found specific failures in this area, saying the ads contributed to “negative stereotyping of Māori and Pacifica people as criminals and… the idea of a ‘white saviour’.” The ASA agreed with a complaint that one of the advertisements presented “a very stereotypical representation of Pākehā Corrections officer and Māori prisoner, which was likely to cause offence and harm.”

A failed engagement

This was not a surprise to Johnson McKay (Ngāti Mahuta, Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Rongomaiwahine), culture and strategy lead and founder at strategic brand and creative consultancy Ira. He sent a critique of aspects of the campaign to The Spinoff, saying it was a “mistake to make the corrections officer European looking (who knows, he could be Māori) and the inmate Māori looking (who knows, he could be Samoan or Greek). The implied nanny state overrides the message,” McKay wrote. 

A frame from the Corrections ad, showing a Pākehā corrections officer facing a Māori man and his son. The officer is in colour while the rest of the image is black and white
A still from one of the Corrections ads (Image: Youtube, design: Tina Tiller)

He had a particular issue with the advertisement featuring the father and son’s interaction with a corrections officer – the same one with which the ASA took issue. “The two look at each other feeling awkward, embarrassed, like the corrections officer knows a secret about the inmate and could damage him in front of his son,” says McKay. “It disrespects the inmate and emphasises conformity, rather than emphasising processes of healing and rehabilitation.”

Ira had been approached by Corrections about engagement on a similar campaign, to staff the Waikeria prison, in 2021. Yet after Covid-related construction delays, the campaign didn’t go ahead and the decision was made to commission a national recruitment campaign in response to a broadly challenging employment environment. Ira was not given the opportunity to contribute to the thinking behind the subsequent campaign – Corrections declined an interview with The Spinoff and failed to explain why the agency was dropped for the larger and pricier campaign. 

It was instead awarded to Stanley St, formerly the local branch of international giant Ogilvy. It has been Corrections’ agency across recruitment for some years, with Corrections citing “a long-standing relationship” between the prison service and the ad agency as the reason for its selection for the lucrative contract. The campaign debuted in October of last year, and cost $3.85m – with over $1.3m going toward production costs and $2.5m to place the advertisement across various media, the vast bulk toward linear television spots. 

What did the campaign achieve?

The ads were created in response to the “tightest New Zealand employment market in years”, according to a release on Stop Press, and Corrections says it has received over 3,000 applications since the campaign debuted in October of last year, with 166 new staff commencing work in 2023 to date. Yet while Corrections called the campaign a success on that basis, its union disagrees, telling 1News “unfortunately, that’s no increase on what we used to [have]”. 

Equally damning is the campaign’s failure to impact the mix of its staff, with Corrections telling The Spinoff thatthe ethnic make up of applicants did not change materially prior to and during the campaign”. Corrections supplied a statement attributed to Richard Waggott, its deputy chief executive for people and capability. In it, Waggott says his organisation is “committed to addressing the over-representation of Māori in the Corrections system and our strategic direction is orientated towards this goal.” 

Waggott says that “Corrections recognises that the topic of imprisonment can be difficult and challenging, particularly for many in our communities who have been impacted by intergenerational inequities in the justice system,” and that it “paid special attention to casting, scripting, and testing throughout production of the advertisement.”

An edited frame from another Corrections ad, showing a Pākehā man in black and white in the foreground as two Corrections officers in colour stand in the background
A frame from another Corrections ad in the campaign (Image: Youtube, design: Tina Tiller)

He went on to note particular sensitivities around the casting of the role of the prisoner, saying it “could be perceived as reinforcing a negative stereotype of prisoners being Māori. However, this was balanced with the need to be authentic in our portrayal of realistic interactions that occur in the prison environment. Approximately 53% of the prison population in New Zealand identify as Māori and we realised it would be disingenuous to ignore and not acknowledge this overrepresentation.” The statement also noted that filming occurred alongside “a Māori director who was able to provide additional support to the actors.”

For McKay, the ads held great promise, but were sorely lacking in execution. “The opportunity here was to take Aotearoa on a journey to understand the failings in our current system and the vision for change that benefits all New Zealanders. Instead, the adverts just turn up asking people to join them,” he wrote. 

“Not trusting Aotearoa to be mature enough to have open, honest communication like this has led to an insincere and inauthentic outcome.”

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