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The unauthorised history of the iconic Vogel’s ‘New Zealanders Overseas’ ad

It contains one of the most memorable lines in New Zealand advertising, but what else went into making the iconic Vogel’s O.E. ad? Maha Albadrawi, with help from Lucy Zee, investigates.

As a kid, I watched a lot of TV. I still do, really, only now we call it ‘consuming content’ and it can be done anywhere, anytime, and almost ad-free. But just over a decade ago, we couldn’t fast forward through the ads. It may be because of this that I have a deep sense of nostalgia for Kiwi ads from around the turn of the centuryMy favourite though, by far, is the iconic Vogel’s “New Zealanders Overseas” ad.

Since it first aired in the year 2000, I’ve been mildly obsessed with it. I love everything about it: the earthy music (Chris Knox humming the tune of his 1989 hit ‘Not Given Lightly’), the archetypal Kiwis on their O.E., and the idea that food from home makes you less homesick. It all felt so authentic.

Every once in a while, someone would sassily say “It was a year ago, okay (insert name here)? Let it go!” and I would be reminded of the actress’s inspired delivery of that line. Then I’d wonder: who came up with this idea? Did they really fly a crew around the world to shoot this? Why did it resonate so well?

So I decided to investigate.

New Zealand is a small country, and the world of TV and advertising is even smaller. Luckily, I managed to parlay all of that TV watching into a career in the industry, so I figured that finding out the name of the ad agency, production company and director of the ad would be easy, right?

THE DIRECTOR

I managed to find out that the director of the ad was Sima Urale. She may not be a household name but her work is beautiful and I’ve been a fan for a long time. In high school I was shook by her 1996 short film O Tamaiti. The film is about an 11-year-old Samoan boy who is the protector and guardian of his four younger siblings, told entirely through the perspective of the children.

A few years later, Sima came to the University of Auckland to talk to our Film Production Group. I sat enthralled as she told us about the production of the King Kapisi video ‘Subcranial Feeling’, the logistics of shooting at a swimming pool on a low budget and what motivates and inspires her.

Sima is gifted storyteller – especially of stories about people being far away from home. Her short film Coffee and Allah, about a young Ethiopian woman as she begins to navigate her new surroundings, captures the small moments of alienation which form such a big part of the immigrant experience. The Vogel’s ad is about homesick Kiwi expats, so it’s really fitting that she directed it.  

Through a mutual contact, I was able to get her email address. I sent her an email but got no response. I’m hoping that this is because she’s busy, or her email’s changed, or it went to the junk folder. Not because my email was too fangirlish and she didn’t want to talk to someone who clearly has no chill.

THE CORE CAST MEMBER

On the other hand, Fraser McGregor (the London flatmate) was more than happy to talk to me about his experience on the production. Back in 2000, he was a 25 year-old Kiwi on his O.E. He’d finished uni and worked for a couple of years in Auckland before spending six months travelling around India, and had arrived in London “with absolutely no money.”

“They kind of street cast for that role,” Fraser told me. “A friend of a friend’s mother was producing it. She, via her daughter, got in touch with a whole bunch of Kiwis who were living in London. Someone turned up to my flat in London, and I kind of had to hold up a piece of bread, but I wasn’t an actor at all.”

He had just started a new job and had to pull a sickie to shoot the scene, which took half a day and was shot in someone else’s London flat. “It was all pretty ‘fly by the seat of your pants’”.

He remembers going down to the pub with Sima while the crew set up at the flat. “There was a really loose script, but I think we just ran a whole lot of different scenarios and it was kind of like ‘What would you do? Where would you put it” (in this) scenario. So we actually made it up.”

So, the casting was done by word of mouth, the London dude was actually on his O.E., and the whole scene was improvised. It doesn’t get more Kiwi than that.

The next stop for the crew was New York City, to get the exterior shot of some apartments (the interior was actually shot in Parnell). Fraser remembers the crew talking about what a cushy gig it was. “It was almost as if the creatives thought ‘What’s an idea for an ad that would allow us to go for a cruise around the world, whilst shooting it?’”

Well, I was about to find out exactly how the idea came to be. Fraser put me in touch with the person who actually wrote the ad. Never, in my wildest dreams, did I think I would be talking to the person who worked on the original idea. The nerdy, 11 year-old me would have been so happy.

THE WRITER

The man who wrote this classic ad is Oliver Green, and he currently lives in Bali with his wife and young son. At the time of writing the ad about Kiwi expats, Oliver had never lived overseas. He was at the beginning of his advertising career, and his entry into the world of advertising was pretty unorthodox.

He had been part of a rap group called Urban Disturbance in the 1990s with Zane Lowe. In 1995, the group was asked to write a rap for a Coke ad for a fee of $5,000 (about $10,000 in 2017 money). Oliver (MC Oli) was working on a building site and had never seen that much money.

From there he applied to the AWARD school, a highly competitive 12-week training programme for aspiring creatives, copywriters and art directors, then landed a job at Max TV as its creative director. Max TV was a full-time music channel, 1990s New Zealand’s answer to MTV. This lead to a job at Publicis Mojo, before he was lured over to Colenso BBDO… all the way to the Vogel’s account.

When I asked him how he came up with the idea, he says he thought about what would happen if you were to take a beloved product away from someone. “You can’t take (Vogel’s) away from them in NZ, so what happens when you take away the person from the product? That kind of reversal of situations (was what) led us to the thought of New Zealanders overseas.”

The most quoted line from the ad – “It was a year ago, okay Michael, let it go!” – came about because “we were looking for archetypes. In advertising it’s kind of shorthand. You don’t have 45 minutes to develop a character, you’ve got five seconds. You’re looking for quick characters, so she was ‘that Noo Yawk Gurl!’”

Sometimes, association with an ad spells the death of a song’s popularity. In the case of ‘Not Given Likely’, its appearance in this ad – and subsequent Vogel’s campaigns – hasn’t sullied people’s affection for the song or the artist. I asked Oliver how he decided on the music.

“I always loved that song. It said everything we wanted to say. Sometimes you can be boastful about a product, and you can get away with it if the tonality is right. It’s saying it’s you (Vogel’s) that I love, but because of the nature of the performance you kind of get away with it.”

They recorded a humming version and a whistling version, even re-recording a take in Chris Knox’s villa in Grey Lynn. That was the take that made the final cut. 

Finally, I asked Oliver why he thinks the ad has resonated with Kiwis so well. He thinks that having a great product gives you a head start. “If you can find something that’s true about the product, and add a layer of comedy on to that, you’re onto something.”

THE BIG KICKER

Oliver is now a freelance commercial director and has continued to work on New Zealand brands such as Anchor and Air New Zealand (you can view his recent work here). In fact, he recently came back to NZ to direct the new Vogel’s ad.

That’s right, the director of the new Vogel’s ad which is winning hearts everywhere is the same young upstart who wrote the script we’ve been quoting for 17 years.

My curiosity satisfied, I thanked Oliver for his time and ended the Skype call.

Knowing all the ingredients now, the success and longevity of the ad makes total sense. It was conceived by a scrappy young creative, early in his career and looking to inject authenticity into the work; brought to life by a talented storyteller; and features at least one person who was the real deal. When you consider all of that, it’s no surprise that – even 17 years later – we still can’t let it go.

Additional reporting by Lucy Zee.


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