WELLINGTON (AFP) - New Zealanders were presented with four options for a new flag on Tuesday, three of them depicting a silver fern leaf similar to that used on the All Blacks rugby jersey.
The flags were whittled down from more than 10,000 entries in a government-sponsored effort to find an alternative to New Zealand's current banner, which features Britain's Union Jack in the corner.
Three of the designs show the silver fern leaf, the informal national emblem, with various backgrounds combining red, blue, black and white.
The fourth depicts a spiralling black-and-white koru, or fern frond, a traditional Maori symbol of new life and creation.
Kiwis will pick their favourite among the four at a referendum later this year and the winner will then go head-to-head against the existing flag in a second vote next March.
Project head John Burrows said the aim was to find a flag that was "unmistakably New Zealand".
"It should celebrate us as a progressive, inclusive nation that's connected to its environment, has a sense of its past and a vision of its future," he said.
"For well over a century, the fern's been an iconic and instantly recognisable symbol of New Zealand, it's been a very strong part of our heritage and it works so well on a flag."
Prime Minister John Key, who initiated the push for a change, has made clear that he favours a silver fern design, saying it is as distinctively New Zealand as the maple leaf is for Canada.
"We are a very proud and passionate nation but we don't utilise our current flag to demonstrate the love we have of our country," he told Fairfax New Zealand on Tuesday.
Key has also expressed frustration the existing flag - which has the Union Jack in the top left and four red stars representing the Southern Cross on a dark blue background - is frequently confused with Australia's almost identical banner.
Critics, including opposition politicians and veteran groups, argue there is no need for change and say the consultation process has been too expensive.
"If that's what you get for NZ$26 million (S$ 23.2 million) it's pretty underwhelming," New Zealand First Party leader Winston Peters told reporters.
Social media users were also unenthusiastic about the designs, labelling the black-and-white koru spiral "hypnoflag" for its supposed hypnotic effect.
One of the most popular designs with online users was a flag that was culled from the original 10,000-plus submissions, which had a kiwi bird shooting green lasers from its eyes.
"Laser Kiwi please save us!!#nzflag," blogger Ken Horlor tweeted.