“An Insult to Our Country”: AC Milan and Nivea Mock the Haka

Before a match last week, a dozen or so actors in Milan uniforms successfully pissed off a lot of Maoris. We talked to some of them about what happened.

Apr 29 2016, 4:45pm

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Last week, before a minor match between Italian football giant AC Milan and the lesser-ranked Capri, a dozen or so people took to the pitch in Milan uniforms and broke into a bastardized version of a haka, the traditional Maori war cry. The dancers—who were later revealed to be actors performing as part of a marketing campaign for skin care company Nivea—threw their arms in the air, rubbed their armpits, and shouted gibberish as they loosely copied the ritual most famously performed by the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team before matches.

Almost instantly, social media channels rang with disapproval, and many New Zealanders who saw Milan's version, such as All Blacks great Sir John Kirwan, were not impressed.

READ MORE: Talking Rugby And The Haka With Maori Cultural Expert Inia Maxwell

"I think it's an insult to our country," Kirwan said. "To be fair, I watched for about 30 seconds before I had to turn it off. I was pretty disgusted and thought that it was embarrassing for a club like AC Milan."

Kirwan, who played 63 test matches for the All Blacks, also coached the Italian rugby team in the early 2000s and continues to spend a lot of time in Italy. At issue, he says, is a giant international corporation using a native culture's traditions for a marketing exercise.

"Italians have a lot of respect, and they really respect our culture," he said. "They understand that when we perform it we're representing our country. I think I'll never buy [Nivea] products again. A company has corporate responsibilities, and for a company like that to show no respect for New Zealand and our culture, where do we draw the line?"

Neither Nivea nor Milan responded to requests for comment for this story, so it's unclear whether either consulted with Maori representatives in developing this marketing stunt, but this wouldn't be the first time a group has come under fire for their use of the haka. Last year during the Rugby World Cup, the English rugby team was slammed for creating a 'hakarena' dance, a hybrid of the haka and the Macarena. Others—like the football club Everton, the Spice Girls, and corporations Fiat and Coke—have also stirred controversy by using their own versions of it.

Even within New Zealand, misuse of the haka has caused controversy. In May 1979, members of the He Taua protest group told Auckland University engineering students to stop performing their drunken version of the famous Ka Mate haka. The students continued to dance the haka, and a brawl ensued. Several engineering students ended up in the hospital with stitches and broken bones. That was the last time the students performed the haka.

For most Maori, the problem lies not with people using the haka itself but in the way they do so.

"Look, I don't have a problem with people doing the haka," said Maori broadcaster and former politician Willie Jackson. "I'm not all exclusive and private and precious, saying this is ours and no one else can do it. Often it's good. It's a recognition of our culture and what we do. But just don't get up and mock it when you don't know what you're doing."

To Jackson, Nivea is exploiting the haka.

"(In this case) I don't really think it's acceptable, especially not if you look at it from a commerciality side," Jackson said. "In the singing or music world there's always a kickback to the performer, there's always a commercial aspect, a royalty. I don't think there's going to be any royalties rolling up for Maori here in New Zealand with that sort of thing. It leaves a bit of a bad taste in the mouth."

Sir Pita Sharples, a renowned Maori academic and politician, thinks that a group of skinny white men trying to do a Polynesian war dance is ridiculous and hardly substantial enough to constitute a cultural insult.

"It's not our form of the haka, and it's got nothing to do with us, really," he said. "It's a burlesque form, and if they want to do that and in our eyes look stupid, or in their eyes look fancy, then that's their right."

Neither Milan nor Nivea have confirmed whether they'll continue the haka-based advertising campaign. It didn't do the team any favors last week: Milan went on to suffer an embarrassing 0-0 draw against its 17th-ranked opponent. Which leads former All Blacks member Sir John Kirwan to question the prudence of performing the haka a second time.

"Do you believe in karma?" he asked. "Because I do."