Book extract: Kiwi chutzpah: The art of the sale
An abiding childhood memory is attending a show in the mid-1960s in the Morrinsville War Memorial Hall by wandering New Zealand singer, recording star, sharpshooter and hypnotist Robert Lane aka Tex Morton. It was a be-dazzling introduction to show business, the highlight of the dozen or so years I lived in the small Waikato dairy town.
That a New Zealander could conjure up an international career based on pure natural talents would set in motion a line of inquiry into our identity and role in the world, and particularly how we translate global fame into commercial success.
Many years later, having passed through an early career as a show business impresario (inspired in part by Morton’s Morrinsville performance), I wrote a short biography of the entertainer for my nzedge.com website, which features stories of many world-changing New Zealanders.
Morton set box office records, first in Canada, where he outsold South Pacific during a run in Toronto, then in Boston and St Louis.
A photograph shows a queue stretching round the block for his show in Montreal – after he had been doing 5 shows a day for 20 weeks. Morton became a legend from Alaska to Jamaica and all the big places in-between.
He was side-splittingly funny and a daredevil to boot, famous for his publicity stunt of walking blindfolded on the parapet of the tallest building in every town he played. He became one of the highest paid touring entertainers in North America. He took his act to England, France and other parts of Europe, where he enjoyed similar popularity.
The Saturday Evening Post named The Great Morton the greatest hypnotist of all time and the world’s best sharpshooter. Singing his bush ballads, he twice played to full houses in Carnegie Hall and, in one early 1950s trip, toured Canada to earnings of $US250,000 for a six-week solo tour.
Morton had chutzpah – the Yiddish word for audacity, or you might say a colourful cocktail of interpersonal artistry made up of courage, mettle and ardour.
This essay explores New Zealanders who displayed chutzpah across economic, political, athletic and creative endeavours. Prosperity isn’t possible without chutzpah; and while advertising is a feature in only some of these stories, the broader elements of iconography, metaphor and language play a defining role.
But every strength over-used or mis-used can be a weakness: chutzpah being no exception. One definition by Leo Rosten in the The Joys of Yiddish (1968) describes it as "gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, incredible ‘guts’, presumption plus arrogance such as no other word and no other language can do justice to."
The first Sale of the Century
One of the greatest of all New Zealand salesmen was the British-born Edward Gibbon Wakefield (1796-1862). In his desire to promote the early colonisation of New Zealand, he commissioned delightful portfolios of hand-coloured drawings depicting the bucolic splendour and variegated semi-urban and rural idyll of 1840s New Zealand – despite not stepping foot in the country until over a decade later.
One surviving edition of the portfolios, used by Wakefield’s New Zealand Company to entice a generation of British citizens to forge a new life downunder, is housed at the Puke Ariki Museum in New Plymouth. Although not on public display, research staff will show to the curious the earliest known extant example of New Zealand-specific advertising.
It’s a beautiful and large tome, slightly bigger than A3, and many of artist Emma Wicksteed’s works fold out to present terrific panoramas. They show a South Pacific utopia, complete with infrastructure and smiling, friendly Māori interacting with British settlers (in one, a gentleman paternally tips his hat to the beaming native). Much of the landscape is suspiciously more like William Blake’s green and pleasant land than recognisable New Zealand scenery.
The drawings are, of course, complete fiction but proved as popular with the public as a block-busting Irish settlers boarded vessels for the new world on the back of Wakefield’s persuasive presentations across the British Isles.
Wakefield was a propagandist, a politician and a scoundrel who was imprisoned for abducting and forcibly marrying a 15-year-old (the marriage was annulled; her honour reputedly intact). He was a businessman and alleged forger and perjurer who was named and shamed in Karl Marx’s 1867 Das Capital. But first and foremost, Wakefield was a salesman, possibly New Zealand’s greatest ever.
The fact that Wakefield’s advertising coup was based on a farrago of untruths does not lessen his achievement, although it perhaps explains the chilly reception he received in 1853 when finally migrating to the country he believed he had created. Arriving at Port Lyttelton at the height of summer, Wakefield expected to be feted as the founding father, and assume leadership of the Canterbury Association, which he helped establish. Alas, years of hard toil seemed to have eroded his sense of gratitude. Indeed, many rightly felt cheated given the New Zealand Company’s extravagant promises.
Despite this, Wakefield’s advertising narrative proved surprisingly resilient – as a trawl through the archives shows – providing the template for the way the country was promoted abroad. As late as 1905, the same tropes in advertising for New Zealand recur: a little England at the bottom of the world; abundant resources for the taking; and a happy native population needing but a little guidance to be turned into proper and decent Englanders. It was largely all Wakefield’s doing and few salesmen, if any, can claim to have shaped the world’s perception of an entire country for more than 60 years, well after his days ended quietly in Wellington.
A woman’s place is in the ballot box
If Wakefield is New Zealand’s single greatest salesman, then the women and (some) men who campaigned for universal suffrage are our greatest ever sales team. The events of 1893 were world-changing, creating headlines across the globe and providing critical impetus and succour to the global suffrage movement.
This remains arguably the most sustained and successful campaign of political advertising in New Zealand’s history, remembering that no nation on earth, let alone one still caught in the throes of Victorian moralism, had granted women full electoral rights.
Where New Zealand dared to tread, the rest of the world would follow. It is for this reason that the 270m-long petition for suffrage, containing 25,520 names, is housed in Archives New Zealand alongside the country’s founding Treaty of Waitangi. The petition is also included in the international UNESCO register of documentary heritage.
Few physical remnants of the advertising campaign remain but there are clues to the nature of the 19th century battle for New Zealanders’ hearts and minds. Unsurprisingly, there are newspaper political cartoons, most ridiculing the concept of suffrage or suggesting the world would come to an end.
This historic accomplishment was achieved despite press opposition. Also in the archives are numerous photographs of parish-pump campaigning: public halls festooned with posters and marches down public streets, placards bravely brandished. In one picture, two woman ride horses bearing broadsides announcing their cause; they are riding side-saddle of course. Kiwi women may have been campaigning to become the first in the world to vote, but there were still gender-based standards of decency to be upheld.
Once the battle was won, the press rallied round. An 1894 etching published in the New Zealand Graphic and Ladies Journal shows a woman scaling the parliamentary heights and bearing a flag announcing "perfect political equality." The caption reads "The Summit At Last." The political effect is somewhat spoiled, however, by the presence of a man, already at the summit, reaching out to haul the grand dame of democracy onto the shelf of his elevated position.
Still, it was 1894 and showed even a hostile press could be persuaded by a well-articulated and well-executed advertising campaign. (This year (2013), 120 years later, the world of progressive civil rights still spins in New Zealand, with freshly passed legislation recognising gay marriage and Maurice Williamson’s Parliamentary ‘big gay rainbow’ speech being celebrated the world over.)
A nation of superior muscular manhood
If Wakefield’s act of salesmanship started with brazen untruth, then the next feat of marketing is one of myth-making. The Originals rugby tour of the United Kingdom, France and United States in 1905 was more than a series of games; it was a seismic assertion of an independent national identity, akin to a son exceeding his father’s accomplishments for the very first time.
Leaving aside the bare details of sporting success – 35 matches played, 34 won, 830 points scored and only 39 conceded – this historic occasion created a global awareness in the English-speaking world of a nation of "superior muscular manhood." This perception was not without foundation. The Originals routed almost all opposition, and their superior rugby skills and technical innovation enthralled the British, French and American public.
The press and advertising world took note. As Booker Prize nominee Lloyd Jones notes in his superlative account of the tour, The Book of Fame (2000), the Originals’ performances transcended even international events of real import: "For our one point win over Swansea, the Times gave us 75 lines – longer than 'the crisis in Odessa is over,' longer than 'the suppression of the Moscow revolt,' longer than 'St Petersburg strike at an end.'" And incredibly the test matches earned reports in excess of 160 lines.
Cartoonists routinely depicted the Kiwis as behemoths: Wanted: A Giant Killer was one in the Western Mail. Former English international Leonard Tosswell wrote in The Press: "Is the Colonial born and bred on a higher mental and physical scale nowadays? They are not only better men physically but quicker in conception, possess much more initiative and, moreover, a greater amount of resolution."
Advertising for New Zealand in British papers quickly accommodated the new narrative: "The Home of the New Zealand Footballers," exclaimed a full-page ad in The Weekly Dispatch, "deer-stalking, trout fishing. The land for tourists … also the land for settlers." The ads (or the rugby) were a tremendous success: migration surged from less than 20,000 in 1900 to more than 45,000 in 1906.
It wasn’t just the rugby, however, creating this hysteria.
Te Rauparaha’s famous Ka Mate haka was performed before each game on this tour for the first time. The haka created an enormous stir and was responsible for the palpable sense of match theatre. The other significant first was the appearance of the silver fern on the jersey; an introduction of iconography that has flourished through the sporting ages, both in branding and as a perennial mooted favourite motif for the New Zealand flag. (The full confidence and glory of the silver fern is perhaps best captured in the photo of Peter Snell breasting the finish tape at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.)
The Originals tour also led to the bestowal of one of the most famous sporting team names in the Western world: All Blacks. As York University’s Tom Weir writes in his dissertation Professionals, Cheats and Superior Muscular Manhood: British Domestic Responses To The 1905 New Zealand ‘All Blacks’ Rugby Union Tour (University of York, 2011), the tour led to an anguished national debate around the "physical deterioration" of the English male.
"These 27 New Zealanders would enthrall Britain, not merely sporting followers," Weir writes. "Within weeks, whole towns would turn out just to see the team arrive on the train and newspaper print devoted to them could be measured in 'miles rather than inches.' They left British shores established as the mighty All Blacks."
Riding to fortune on the sheep’s back
Prior to 1905, New Zealand’s great claim to international fame was its frozen meat exports, owed to the entrepreneurial flair and business nous of Thomas Brydone and William Davidson who seized upon the new-fangled technology, refrigeration. While they didn’t invent refrigeration, they were the first to fully capitalise on its commercial potential.
Sending frozen meat half-way round the world aboard a sailing ship, in a voyage lasting three months, seemed an inconceivable challenge. Yet the technical problems were overcome and the pair landed the first consignment of frozen meat to Britain, nearly 20,000 km from its most farflung colony, in 1882. Every carcass, bar one, was in pristine condition.
Their achievement cannot be overstated. Their work transformed the New Zealand economy, creating a new export industry, hundreds of thousands of new jobs and revolutionised the structure of agriculture. By 1933, about half of Britain’s imports of lamb, mutton, cheese and butter were from these shores. This led to the justifiable claim that New Zealand was a country that ‘rode to fortune on the sheep’s back’.
Part of the marketing success can be traced back to the narrative Wakefield established in the public mind of New Zealand being an unspoilt rural paradise, a land of plenty, similar to Britain but better. As historian James Belich records in Paradise Reforged: "New Zealand appears to have made a more precise and effective adaptation to the desires of the British market and to have achieved a substantial edge in perceived quality."
Chutzpah on the world stage
The land of plenty was to be the foundation of the sprawling success of Joseph Edward Nathan. He was to found a brand name that would win wide acclaim, nurture the national ego and become central to the impulse of a colony in its formative years. Nathan’s trajectory from a 12-year-old jobbing tailor in London in the 1840s, to an international industry doyen from New Zealand, is a classic rags-to-riches story. Settling in Wellington with his wife in 1857 and working extensively in the merchant trade, he established Joseph Nathan and Company in 1873, the firm that would eventually become the Britain-based Glaxo.
Glaxo was initially an exporter of baby food, with production from a specially-designed milk-drying factory, first at Makino near Feilding, and later Bunnythorpe north of Palmerston North. Suppliers and consumers initially resisted the product. The first name – Defiance – was not an appealing name. To ease the way and propel market impact, a new name was proposed. The Nathan directors settled on Lacto but (thankfully) this could not be registered because several similar names were already in the market. By adding and changing letters, the name Glaxo evolved and was registered as a trademark in 1906.
But advances were precariously won. Glaxo competed with an astounding 300 brands of dried milk when it entered the UK market. To build market share, a front-page London Daily Mail ad was tried in 1908.
The slogan – "the food that builds bonny babies" – later became famous, but the ad generated just 57 responses. Consumers appeared to have shunned Glaxo and the company fingers were considered burnt and the future of Glaxo questioned. In hindsight, the one-off advertisement was unlikely to create market penetration and the 57 responses were perhaps a good response. Indeed, there was no back-up campaign, no support material, no repeat ads and such a dense market was unlikely to react notwithstanding a front page ad in a popular daily.
If Glaxo was to continue, competition and consumer resistance were the major obstacles to overcome.
Given total sales in the 7 months of trading in 1908 reached just £1900, with a loss of almost £3,000, it is not surprising that some managers became gun shy.
One of Nathan’s sons, Alec, stepped into the breach, carrying the argument step-by-step to continue Glaxo.
His persistence would ultimately pay off, but from 1908 to 1910 Glaxo still failed to make a profit. In 1911 it pocketed just £500 on a turnover of £10,000 and during this time Glaxo could, again, have easily disappeared.
Although Joseph Nathan died in 1912 (in Britain having moved back there in 1887), the product kept going and by 1918 Glaxo dominated the sales of Nathan and Co Ltd with a turnover of £550,000. There would be no looking back. It was Alec’s approach to promotion that effectively held the key and, in time, his strategies would be considered ground-breaking.
The Glaxo Baby Book was created in 1908 after nurses employed by the company found it difficult to answer the flood of mothers’ inquiries. It was thinly veiled advertising passed off as a guide to proper parenting – the kind of socially-accepted marketing the drug industry still yearns for today. In 1915, Advertising World magazine described the initiative as "the most successful form of advertising of the present day."
Alec Nathan was assisted, once more, by an existing British preconception that New Zealand produce was superior quality. By 1922, a staggering one million copies of the baby welfare books had been published; Glaxo was a household name; and the book would endure for 60 years. Person-specific mail was sent to doctors, personal visits made and birth notices used to mail mothers – all further progressive moves and well before "direct marketing" got its name.
The company was further developed by the Nathan family and became Glaxo Laboratories in 1935, the first step on the long road to becoming a multinational pharmaceutical company. GlaxoSmithKline is now the fifth largest pharmaceutical company in the world and the fifth largest listed company on the FTSE. It is a testament to the branding foresight of Joseph Nathan that the company leads with the name Glaxo, even though it is many mergers removed from its origins.
For the Orthodox Jew Joseph Nathan, chutzpah seems an entirely appropriate moniker.
Mixed media maestro
Another Kiwi with chutzpah, this time with a global influence on design and graphics, was Joseph Sinel. His career is a great uncelebrated New Zealand story.
Take a look at the Industrial Design Society of America’s Century Review and you will find him named alongside the giants of industrial design: Mies van der Rohe, Charles Eames, Buckminster Fuller and Walter Gropius. Indeed, Sinel is credited with the neologism "industrial design," describing how technology and art come together to create era-defining design. An industrial designer’s job was, as Sinel memorably defined it, to ensure that an object was "right in your eye and in your eye right."
Born in Auckland in 1889, Sinel graduated from the Elam School of Art and apprenticed as a lithographic artist at the New Zealand Herald from 1904 to 1909. His OE landed him in London where he gained commercial experience in Europe’s largest art studio, and in an advertising agency with clients such as Goodrich Tyres and British Government War Loans.
By 1918 he was in the USA and working for National Pictures Studio in New York and, fascinated by the automobile in an era before most of America was paved for driving, he set off on the road across the States with movie advertising graphics painted on the car’s sides. Thus-adorned, he was often photographed on arrival in towns and a front-page feature in local newspapers.
This early example of ambient advertising was evidence of the flair for self-promotion Sinel would demonstrate throughout his career. From 1919, in both San Francisco and New York, Sinel hit his straps and began creating designs of unsurpassed quality.
It helped that he was a virtuoso of mixed media, designing products, 3D models, advertising, logos, fonts, publications, magazines, books, front covers, catalogues, annual reports, exhibitions and interiors. In 1924 he wrote and published a textbook establishing ground rules for image-making and developing brands. His famous book – A Book of American Trademarks and Devices – laid out basic rules of corporate identity and was illustrated with over 300 trademarks Sinel designed. It was a prescient textbook for, in today’s virulent corporate lingo, "brand planning" and "image-making."
Among the first of many products to be designed over his prolific career were scales for Peerless and the International Ticket Scale Corporation (magnificently art deco in style, they were crafted with motifs suggesting the then ultra-modern skyscraper); the Acousticon and Sonotone hearing aids; Remington typewriters ("the first of the good-looking typewriters"); and calculators for Marchant.
Operating as a freelancer, Sinel insisted on single contracts and based his persuasive presentations on drawings and mockedup models: the International Ticket scale was made out of Del Monte fruit crates and led to a $US10,000 commission and 25-year royalty deal. His panache and success resulted in a sideline career presenting ad agency pitches to clients at $US20-30,000 a pop, an extraordinary amount for the 1920s. Over his career Jo Sinel produced work for 55 advertising agencies, and his client list reads like a who’s who of the American corporate elite.
Joseph Sinel was one of the 14 founders of the Society of Industrial Designers in 1944. He was "tough, egotistical, argumentative and stubborn, but with many endearing traits." He loved fast cars, owning two Rolls Royces and a Bentley, and cruising in caravans across much of America and along the edge on two tours home to New Zealand. When he died in 1975, he returned to his place of birth – his ashes were scattered on one of his family’s properties in Kerikeri.
In the pantheon of New Zealand heroes, few have advertised their own way to greatness. Fame has been achieved by racing tracks, climbing mountains, crossing oceans, and scoring tries; with steely determination and taciturn efficiency. Flamboyance has been a blade of grass asking to be mown.
The past few decades have corrected this New Zealand deficiency of punishing difference and outspokenness.
The quality of going against the grain can make the difference between good and great, as illustrated by the snapshots of characters in this essay. All utilised what we know today as "marketing techniques" to help achieve their goals. Just imagine how the reclusive Richard Pearse would be revered in the annals of world aviation if he had a publicist with him in 1903 when he flew his self-built monoplane about 140m before crashing into a gorse hedge on his Waitohi property.
(Jean Batten’s trans-global flying achievements were in a broadcast era thirsty for optimism, such that she became one of the most famous people in the world in the mid-1930s: "the Garbo of the Skies." The chutzpah characters are a reminder of the power of originality, personality and persistence; in-and-of-themselves an advertising avalanche when skilfully and passionately set forth.
This essay is dedicated to the memory of the late and great Lloyd Morrison (1957-2012), a contemporary New Zealander who had "kiwi chutzpah."
Reprinted with permission from Promoting Property: The Art of Early New Zealand Advertising
© Brian Sweeney