I got an email yesterday from a supplier of flags and similar promotional material. It was offering Lions tour bunting. I took a closer look assuming that the product would consist of team colours or logos. But no, the “Lions tour” bunting that they were offering consisted of pictures of people with their faces painted.
In fact what they’re offering is consistent with other messages and imagery I’ve seen surrounding the Lions tour. Here’s the image that takes up half of the screen when you go to http://www.nzlionsseries17.com/.
The upcoming Lions tour is part of one of Rugby’s most significant traditions. As a sporting contest and a spectator event it has certain qualities that even the world cup can’t match. And the games have been followed by operators of still and moving cameras for a century.
Meanwhile the era of professional rugby, synthetic rugby balls and fields with drainage have helped make the on-field action more spectacular and athletic than ever before.
So for a designer tasked with creating visual imagery to promote the tour, there are rich vaults of historic and contemporary imagery available to draw on.
And yet for the Lions tour, someone’s genius idea is to paint a few faces and say “open wide”? It’s as if they’re going out of their way to exclude images of actual play in any promotion of the game. Contrast that with just about any big sporting event, such as the NBA Playoffs, where they're happy to make a collage of their most famous players in action shots to promote their playoffs.
I realise that there is a point to the choice of images made by the rugby union or their design agency, and it’s to make local supporters feel involved. And when prices for games are inflated as much as these have been, the vendors of tickets know that they need to provoke an emotional reaction from local supporters to persuade them to come.
But it isn’t just the Lions tour that does this. In the entire, pathetic history of the Wellington Sevens, I can’t recall ever seeing a poster, advertisement or banner that used an image of on-field action to promote the tournament. Instead the promoters concentrated on shots of spectators in costumes, more painted faces, and a shot of an Austin Powers impersonator.
In the case of the sevens, this insistence on telling spectators that they, and not events on the field, were the real story, was the seed of the event’s demise. When the Wellington Sevens began, the Hong Kong Sevens was (and still is) the ultimate such event. Without Hong Kong the whole Sevens circuit would never have happened. The event had legendary status then, for many reasons – the on-field spectacle, the exotic location and the party element. And in spite of the reputation, the party-goers somehow seemed to remain under control. (I base this on the one time I went, which was in 1997!)
From the start the Wellington event was promoted as a party. We New Zealanders are notorious for being - shall we say - slow to get excited. So while it’s unlikely that any advertisement ever mentioned alcohol, images of spectators dressed up, dancing, and yelling carried a code that didn’t need a lot of decrypting.
Year after year there would be a little hand-wringing about things getting out of hand, but every year the advertisements would go up depicting costumes, painted faces and revelry in the stands. The message was pretty clear. If you want to sit in your seat and take in the sporting action, this isn’t the event for you. But if you want to turn into an exhibitionist for a day, rock on up.
When the tide turned and there was consensus from the organisers, the city council and the police that the partying had to be curbed, the organisers were painted into a corner. The crowds who’d come to Wellington for some consequence-free partying got the message and stayed away. But spectators who might have wanted to go purely for the sport had been well and truly alienated, so there was no-one left to fill the yellow seats.
To cut a long story short, the sevens organisers got the patrons, and the consequences, that they asked for. So what kind of spectator is being encouraged to turn up to the Lions games?