WELLINGTON, New Zealand - First came the idea to have bikini models on motorbikes drive 1,000 sheep through New Zealand's most cosmopolitan city. Then, the idea to urge rugby fans to abstain from sex and save their passion for the country's team.
New Zealand is gearing up to host the Rugby World Cup next month. But its promotional plans are going awry, with residents complaining that some of the concepts for celebrating the country's culture may just as likely invite ridicule.
"What were they thinking?" said Robyn Kippenberger, head of the Royal New Zealand Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), which opposed the planned sheep run.
Organizers had planned to parade the sheep and the scantily clad women through downtown Auckland as a climax to festivals throughout the country in the build-up to the World Cup final. But they cancelled those plans this week amid outcry from Kippenberger and others.
"Maybe we try too hard," Kippenberger said.
Brian Rudman, a columnist for the New Zealand Herald newspaper, wrote that instead of showcasing the sophisticated culture, dining and fashion of Auckland, the event would have portrayed the city as a sheep-shearing village "on steroids."
"How can I justify the cringe factor to my family and friends living overseas?" a reader calling himself Rodney from Howick wrote in response to Rudman's column online. "What are we, all back-country hicks?" wrote another reader.
Kippenberger said it would have been an embarrassment if the world were to see images of panting, scared and possibly injured sheep clattering down paved streets.
Leon Grice, the director of NZ 2011 which is overseeing festival events, said the idea was to promote the best of New Zealand industry, from wine to agriculture. He said he thought the issue of animal welfare had been addressed previously when an Auckland SPCA officer gave the sheep run a thumbs-up.
He noted that sheep lovers will still be able to watch sheep-shearing demonstrations at Auckland's Queens Wharf during the rugby tournament.
Yet even as the sheep furor was dying down Wednesday, a second controversy gathered pace.
Telecom, a sponsor of New Zealand's All Blacks rugby team, has launched a campaign urging New Zealanders to remain chaste, in a joking reference to the notion that some athletes abstain from sex before big matches to improve performance.
The ad features former team captain Sean Fitzpatrick congratulating fellow New Zealanders for "selflessly stepping out into the bed chambers of this fine country, throwing aside your natural instincts, and your lacy lingerie, standing proudly in your flannelette pyjamas and whispering 'I love you, New Zealand."
The campaign has swiftly prompted scorn, with a YouTube video of the ad drawing comments including "Thanks for making us a laughing stock" and "Abstain from Telecom."
Telecom spokesman Mark Watts said the campaign is aimed at "getting people talking, thinking, laughing, and stirring up some noise and colour."
Tom Agee, a senior lecturer in marketing at the University of Auckland, said there's plenty to celebrate at the World Cup without promoters needing to try so hard for publicity. The All Blacks are a great team, he said, and New Zealand is a wonderful country with plenty to offer visitors. There's simply no need, he said, to resort to novelty ideas that could harm the country's image.