Two titans of advertising in Aotearoa appear to have joined forces. Alex Casey tries to get to the bottom of what on earth is going on.
It will come as a surprise to precisely no-one that Briscoes advertised a sale over the weekend. On the New Zealand Herald site, plonked above a story about a man trying to clear his name after being accused of murdering his wife, stood our beloved Tammy Wells, resplendent in cornflower blue, with some slightly more uplifting news. “SUNDAY ONE DAY SALE” the yellow text hollered. Suddenly, the frame of the gif changed. “DOORBUSTER DEALS” the text silently screamed. Another woman appeared on Tammy’s left, arms open like Christ the Redeemer.
The gif changed again. The luminous Christ-like figure turned to look at me. It was a prettier Jesus. It was Suzanne Paul.
Two timeless titans of the advertising world, combining their powers at long last? No wonder the doors are busted. Aside from a brief departure for Briscoes in 2019, Wells has consistently been the beaming face of the homeware behemoth since 1989. Over three decades she has draped herself over sentient couches, been blown to smithereens by a giant Christmas cracker and been imprisoned in a tomb full of presents. All the while, Suzanne Paul was busy hawking Natural Glow, squashing eggs with Bambillos, and lifting up trucks with vacuum cleaners.
But never in all those years did these two women ever appear in the same room. This is a paradigm shift. A cultural reset. An advertising swing even more shocking than when Lily from Big Save stopped shouting and sat down on a bean bag. I immediately got to work figuring out what the hell was happening. Which is to say, I Googled Suzanne Paul + Briscoes and found a small yet distressed community on Reddit, before searching Suzanne Paul on the Briscoes site and finding two “Paul Wood” clocks on sale for $35.00. The chat bot wasn’t much help either.
How could something so significant, so earth-shattering, have happened without so much as a press release? I reached out to both Suzanne Paul and Tammy Wells. I contacted the Briscoes call centre multiple times, and was repeatedly assured that someone would come back to me “shortly”. I passed on my details at Stanley Street, the creative agency behind the Briscoes ads, and heard nothing back either. This was a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside a giant Christmas cracker set to explode at any moment.
Desperate, I turned to Hayden Donnell. The Spinoff contributor and host of RNZ’s Mediawatch is among the country’s leading Suzanne Paul enthusiasts, having once attempted to get the infomercial queen exhibited in our national museum in his show Get It To Te Papa. Hurtling through Auckland’s CBD on an e-scooter, Donnell breathlessly exclaimed over the phone that he could not make sense of the ad. “It feels like crossing the streams of the universe, it’s odd” he wheezed. “It’s like in sports, when two superstars end up on the same team, and it just becomes a super team.”
When asked what Suzanne Paul could bring to the Briscoes multiverse, Donnell praised the “psychic energy” of the woman who brought us the Blue Monkey. “She’s such an unusual artefact, because she’s a force of unbridled and quite public and effusive positivity. In many ways, that clashes with stereotypical New Zealand culture, but she brought something new to our shores and exposed us to a different style of being.” But then why oh why pair her with Wells, New Zealand’s other most valuable natural resource of endless enthusiasm, smiles and sales?
Donnell agreed that there is “a bit of duplication” of energies happening in the Briscoes ad, musing that the combination might even be “too powerful” for our small island nation to handle. “You’ve got two of the most powerful sales forces in New Zealand, or possibly the world’s, history. They are selling stuff which is always 50% off anyway – are their staff going to be able to keep up? Will they have to import more?” He concluded that Briscoes may have “bitten off more than they can chew” and that their stores might soon look like “barren, post-apocalyptic caves”.
Bodo Lang, professor in marketing at Massey University, was not riding an e-scooter when I called, but did echo some of Donnell’s concerns about the combination of powerhouses. “It is definitely a bit weird and disorienting having both of them there,” he said. One theory he proposed was that this might be “advertising wear out” in action. “Maybe market research has shown that the effectiveness of the Briscoes lady has declined or decreased somehow, and people aren’t responding to the advertising quite as positively as they used to,” he said.
Another option is that Tammy Wells wants a cup of tea and a lie down after 34 years of grinning at towels. “For whatever commercial or personal reasons, perhaps she’s decided not to continue with the role,” said Lang. “If that’s the case, they need a bit of an overlap period, where they have both of them in the ads so people get used to it. My sense is that this is a transition phase, we could be witnessing them literally passing on the baton from the Briscoes Lady to Suzanne Paul.” It is worth noting that although the are both ageless, Suzanne Paul is roughly six years older than Tammy Wells.
Given that New Zealanders are feeling the financial pinch at the moment, I pitched to Lang that perhaps this is a last resort to get people shopping at Briscoes again. “Maybe there is something to that, because Suzanne Paul is immediately linked in my mind with infomercials,” he said. “And infomercials have a raft of associations, but the main one is inexpensive. New Zealand is experiencing a cost of living crisis, there’s no two ways about it. So if you wanted to signal that your brand is inexpensive, Suzanne Paul is probably a good person to do that.”
Although she is a powerful sales force, Lang noted that the addition of Suzanne Paul isn’t the most groundbreaking in terms of representation. “It’s 2023, maybe it is time to think hey, maybe we could use somebody else, perhaps a Māori woman or a Pacific woman,” he said, noting that the spokesperson would still probably have to be a woman to reflect the target market. “What would a 20 year-old Indian woman living in Auckland know of Suzanne Paul? Not a lot, probably, so I think her appeal to younger audiences is also probably a little bit more limited.”
Of course, this is all just speculation. Briscoes, Paul and Wells are yet to comment on the situation, but what we know for sure is that at least one Suzanne Paul fan out there is delighted to see her back on the tools again. “I’m pleased for her and I’m pleased for New Zealand, because I do think something died in this country when her infomercials went off air,” said Donnell. For a man who spent most of 2018 unsuccessfully attempting to encase Suzanne Paul behind glass and put her in our national museum, this is the next best form of preservation.
“The Briscoes ads give people this mythical, timeless quality, so putting Suzanne Paul there might in fact keep her away from the ravages of time. And that, really, is all I want.”