Judging The Best Rugby League Ad of All Time

At the start of each season, our peak sporting bodies launch exhaustive advertising campaigns that aim to win the hearts and minds of you, the Australian sports consumer. In this first instalment, The Public Apology’s Dave Edwards, Alasdair McClintock and Ben Shine look at rugby league’s most notable efforts over the past 20 years to sell the game to Australia.

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Tina Turner, ‘What You Get is What You See’, 1989

Dave Edwards: The 1989 season is regarded as one of rugby league’s greatest, culminating in perhaps its finest and most controversial grand final to date. The tone was set at season’s launch, with this cheeky, light-hearted campaign hitting all the right notes. Tina Turner brought sass and sex appeal to the ARL – no mean feat, mind you.

I dare you to watch this ad without a smile creeping onto your face. Back in 1989, men were stout, muscular. They had non-ironic mustaches and plenty of body hair. Steedens were orange and looked heavy. Kickers used sand instead of tees. Sleeve tattoos were still 20 years away. I could go on…

Ben Shine: According to this ad, in 1989 it was OK to market sport as sexy. But then the mid-90s hit, and thanks to a slew of sex scandals, coupled with the general outbreak of political-correctness, ads promoting the sex appeal of rugby league were – along with sporting events sponsored by cigarette companies and Tina Turner’s career – consigned to the dustbin of history.

It’s a damned shame. Rugby league would never be sexy ever again.

Al McClintock: I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that people were better looking back in the 80s. Sex was real back then. You couldn’t just send a couple of dick or titty pics over Tinder and hope for the best. You had to go out, have a couple of beers or West Coast Coolers, and actually meet somebody.

Tina Turner and moustachioed rugby league players were the epitome of this raw sex-appeal. It was long before it became a sport of wrestling to slow down the play-the-ball and every backline having the exact same set plays. Rugby league was wild, free flowing and convivial. Rugby league was beautiful.

Tina Turner and Jimmy Barnes, ‘Simply the Best’, 1993

Dave Edwards: This ad was rugby league’s finest moment in advertising. Tina Turner AND Jimmy Barnes, together at last. Montages of bruising hits and runaway tries. Hairy, shirtless men staring down the barrel of a camera, shot in black and white. A rugby league competition named after a cigarette company.

1993 was peak rugby league. It’s incredible to think that in just a few short years, the game would be writhing around on the floor in agony, crippled by the media rights land grab brought forth by corporate villain News Corp. But in 1993, rugby league was truly in its pomp – and this famous advertisement tapped into the zeitgeist.

Ben Shine: OK, I was wrong. Rugby league was sexy again. But it was acceptable for NRL to evoke sexiness in 1993 because our conceptions of sexiness were different back then. This advertisement is 90s sexy, not 2015 sexy.

90s sexy was two middle-aged people wearing tight clothes, rubbing up against one another and singing about love. Like seeing your parents kiss, it was safe, kind of sweet and only slightly creepy. If the NRL were to now embrace modern conceptions of sexiness, their advertising campaign would involve a group of bisexual tweens sexting one another dick-pics and using smart phone apps to invite strangers to their Japanese manga-themed orgies (what I am led to believe young people are up to these days).

Al McClintock: This is, without a doubt, the greatest advertising campaign that ever was. Truly rugby league’s biggest hit. You can have your Coca-Cola Christmas campaigns, I’ll take Alan ‘Bloody’ Cann and a young Luke Ricketson any day of the week. They should just reuse this campaign every year and be done with it.

‘It’s My Game’, 1997

Dave Edwards: In 1997, rugby league was in turmoil. As such, the ARL decided upon a rootsy, unionist campaign designed to reclaim the game from its corporate challenger. This ad was gritty as fuck; it challenged you. Are you with us, or against us? Sure, Super League is shiny and new, but rugby league – that’s my game.

Ben Shine: This ad is so gritty it hurts my teeth. The fact that is finishes with three gunshot sounds really brings home the fact rugby league was at war with Super League. BANG BANG BANG, YOUR GAME IS DEAD.

Al McClintock: Pull the earth and grass out of your eyeballs and get on with it, son. That is what this ad says to me. Super League may have had the money and fancy logos, but you don’t need any of that for rugby league, you just need a dusty paddock and few willing souls. 1997 gave us arguably the best the finish to a grand final and undoubtedly the most memorable State of Origin. I’m all for splitting the comp again.

Frankie Goes to Hollywood, ‘Two Tribes’, 1997

Dave Edwards: Super League v ARL was a huge, protracted battle, similar in many ways to the Cold War. In the actual video clip, we see Ronald Reagan taking on former Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko in what seems like an unauthorised wrestling match. At the end, we see nuclear war break out – resulting in destruction of the entire human race, presumably.

At many times during the Super League War, it felt as if both sides were embarking upon Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). This ad was an inspired piece of marketing – daring the viewer to choose between Super League and the ARL, or risk nuclear death. Super League was the slick, corporate newcomer. Remember, this marketing campaign ran parallel to the ARL’s ‘It’s My Game’ ad. The two ad campaigns could not have been more different.

Ben Shine: In hindsight, choosing a song about the destruction caused by war to market your game when you are engaged in a full-on war for your survival, is both brave and weird.

More likely is the Super League bosses didn’t think rugby league fans would actually listen to the lyrics. If my 13-year-old self is anything to go by, they were right. I liked the ad immensely.

Chumbawumba, ‘Tubthumping’, 1998

Dave Edwards: The game was back together in 1998 – and what better way to celebrate than a very literal ad campaign that celebrates everything that rugby league is about: drinking whiskey/vodka/lager/cider drinks, getting knocked down, and then getting back up again.

Sure, the ad attracted some criticism – many saw it as a celebration of thuggery – but off the back of the difficult Super League War, rugby league had to go back to basics in order to win back the fans. This was not the time for an obscure, highbrow campaign. We’d have to wait 12 months for rugby league to boldly venture into such highfalutin territory (the Thomas Keneally campaign of ’99).

Ben Shine: Fuck yeah! Who didn’t like this song! What a great message! “I get knocked down, I get up again, you’re never gonna keep me down!”. Wait, what do you mean it’s about binge drinking? Oh, that part about drinking lots of spirits. I guess you’re right. That is pretty silly in hindsight, given rugby league’s turbulent relationship with the demon drink and all.

Al McClintock: I think this is a clear example of where rugby league’s tendency to dive right in, head first and without really thinking, often proves its undoing. Obviously they didn’t spend too much time listening to lyrics of this song, just wrapped their ears around the catchy chorus and thought, “Heck yeah, that’s rugby league!”

Or maybe not. Maybe this was the most honest rugby league has ever been. “We love getting on the piss and winning games of footy.” Isn’t that ultimately what we all love about the game?

Thomas Keneally, ‘Blow That Whistle Ref’, 1999

Dave Edwards: Sure, rugby league and poetry are not your typical bed fellows. But who are we to judge other people’s relationships?

We all had a laugh when acclaimed poet Keneally penned his ode to rugby league, but looking back at it now – through wise 29-year-old eyes – I think it’s actually a great ad. Listen to the way Keneally says “Kids paint signs…. and I’m seven again.” This is a man looking back fondly upon his childhood, longing for simpler days.

Bear in mind that in 1999, the game was still reeling from the Super League War. Keneally just wants to be transported back to a time where money hungry media moguls had nothing to do with rugby league. Didn’t we all?

“I have hope in March, and I might share in the glory of September.” This poem had bucketloads of emotion. It was real talk. Maybe it would have farer better with an authoritative voiceover guy reading the poem, rather than Keneally himself – all quivering voice and oversized bucket hat – but I think rugby league did a good job here.

Sadly, the rugby league public wasn’t ready for such a rare advertising campaign.

Al McClintock: Rugby league is a game of few words and thus I find this campaign incredibly ironic. I certainly didn’t like, it as a teenager, when it came out. Coming from a Catholic background, old men talking about kids always made me uncomfortable.* And rugby league is not about being uncomfortable. It is about slipping into your favourite tracksuit and drinking generic beer.

With Keneally, I feel the NRL was stepping out of its place. Poetry is much more of a rugby union thing. Thoughtful, graceful and usually spruiked by overtly intellectual men who appreciate nothing more than ejaculating their intelligence all over the masses. Everything rugby league fans hate about union, basically. 

* Just want to clear up I was never molested, just always found the priests creepy. Rightfully so, it would seem.

Tom Jones, ‘What a Game’, 2000

Dave Edwards: In 2000, we see rugby league attempt the “sex sells” strategy. Perhaps hoping to recapture the success of Tina Turner’s 1989 ad, the NRL employed Tom Jones to croon his way into the hearts of female fans. In this campy video, an ageing, leathery Jones invites us into his boudoir for a funk-driven rugby league romp. It’s the year 2000, and everyone’s feeling sexy.

Ben Shine: I think this is the precise moment where the NRL turned its back on “youth” (anyone aged under 50). Even Baby Boomers think Tom Jones is old.

Al McClintock: I think 2000 was the year rugby league, culturally, really began to lose its way. This ad is is all about the objectification of women and building up the players sense of entitlement, and thus a litany of gangbangs ensued. It also established Ryan Girdler as a sexual icon of the game. Something I have never understood at all.

Hoodoo Gurus, ‘That’s My Team”, 2003 and 2007

Ben Shine: This one is up there with “Simply the Best”: so good they used it twice. While Tina Turner was sexy, this was the NRL’s attempt at earthiness and reclaiming the tribal middle-ground. It could’ve easily gone badly, but the Hoodoo Gurus brought the dad-rock gravitas to make it work.

Al McClintock: Rugby league had lost the kids and they knew it. So they call on Australia’s love of nostalgic rock-and-roll to bring it back to the fore – and boy did it work! Ben hits it on the head when he describes it as ‘dad-rock.’ I imagine this campaign reunited several lost children with the fathers who abandoned them; as they fondly remembered the good years, when Dad took them to the footy and hurled racial abuse at Mario Fenech.

Wes Carr, ‘Feel It’, 2009

Dave Edwards: We all groaned when the NRL tapped an Australian Idol winner for its 2009 ad campaign, but I think this one hits the mark… just. In 2009, the NRL was playing it safe. This isn’t the attempted rebrand we saw with Keneally. This is rugby league doing what it does best: pandering to the masses. The song is shit, though.

Al McClintock: Is this the one they had to axe because Brett Stewart got stitched up for allegedly ‘digitally raping’ a sixteen year old? It might explain why I don’t remember it. It might also explain why the tagline of ‘feel it’ was considered a no go. All that aside, I quite like the sentiment of the video, but the song itself is awful.

Ben Shine: As Al said, this advertisement launched (from memory) the day before Brett Stewart’s life/career blew up due to the scandal not-a-scandal thing on the eve of the 2009 season.

So watching this is like watching the part of the JFK assassination tape before the motorcade enters Dealey Plaza. Everything is fine, everyone is happy, the boy-prince is alive and in his pomp. It captures a beautifully innocent moment in time. But then seconds later, BANG, and everything would change. The President is now dead and the NRL’s poster child from the Northern Beaches is facing trumped-up sexual assault charges. America would never be the same, and neither would Brett Stewart.

This advertisement should be shown to kids to as an educational tool. “Watch this, son. There once was a time when the Manly fullback smiled and celebrated his tries instead of making rude gestures towards the NRL’s administration…”

Jessica Mauboy, ‘Something’s Got a Hold on Me’, 2013

Dave Edwards: Say what you like about Jessica Mauboy, but she represents the new rugby league demographic. She’s Parramatta Westfield, flat-brimmed caps, Australian Idol and The Coffee Club all rolled into one delightful package. These are the people that watch rugby league in 2015.

Ben Shine: Dave’s analysis nailed it. I cannot provide further comment, as it would only dilute the truthiness of his statement.

Al McClintock: Dave is spot on. Still, I’m willing to say this is the best of the post-90s campaigns. Mauboy is too wholesome to be the new Tina Turner, however. You could have a drink and a laugh with Tina, but I think you’d find yourself biting your tongue around Mauboy, lest you offend her. And that is exactly where rugby league has erred in 2015. So worried about possibly offending someone, it has become dull and pointless, like a non-alcoholic beer.

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