Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Pop CultureSeptember 28, 2023

Remember when Tellydots took over our TV screens?

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Tara Ward looks back on the strange TV phenomenon that was Tellydots. 

It was October 2000. The new millennium had dawned, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring mania was about to grip New Zealand and Anastacia’s ‘I’m Outta Love’ was the biggest song of the year. It was also the time when a bizarre TV3 marketing campaign took hold of the country, and some tiny dots took over our television screens. This was the era of the Tellydot, a little piece of sticky cardboard that promised a nation great, great things. 

You might not remember Tellydots, but dedicated TV fan Wayne Lewis does. Wayne has some vague but unshakeable Tellydot memories that have haunted him for the past two decades, and none of them make sense. “I think I remember KFC giving them away with meals,” he recalls. “You would peel the sticker off when the right show came on, and stick it to some part of the telly. At the end of the show you’d remove it, and I think it revealed whether or not you won a prize.” 

Looking back, Wayne is baffled by the whole thing. “I have no idea even now how that would have worked.”

The Tellydots (Photo: Steve on Flickr)

TV3’s ground-breaking Tellydots campaign ran for four weeks in late 2000, with the aim of increasing TV ratings by enticing people to watch a selection of TV3 shows. Every week, loyal viewers could win a dazzling array of prizes, including two Holden Barina cars, a family holiday to Club Med in Malaysia and – wait for it – one of 20 portable CD players. The grand prize was a whopping $333,333 (all the three’s for TV3), and all you had to do to win was stick a magical dot on your television screen. 

Five million Tellydots were imported from Germany for the campaign, which meant that by late 2000, New Zealand had more Tellydots than people.

Each Tellydot was the size of a 50 cent coin, and viewers could collect one with every purchase from KFC, Pizza Hut and BP. Then, whenever a special logo popped up during certain TV3 primetime shows like Third Rock from the Sun, Starship Troopers and Home Improvement, viewers had to peel the backing off a new Tellydot and place it over the logo for a chance to win a prize. 

In the words of Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor: “Aaaeurgh?” How does chucking a piece of cardboard onto a piece of glass win you an international holiday? The science seems shady now, but at the time, Tellydots were promoted as a new piece of technology that allowed marketers to see what shows and ads we were watching, and how long we were watching them for. 

Tool Time (Photo: YouTube)

This secret information was supposedly captured by a piece of photosensitive film hidden inside the Tellydot, which would react to certain patterns of light and slowly “charge up” as the programme screened. Viewers were instructed not to change the channel or – heaven forbid – remove the dot while the show was running, or the Tellydot would become “void”. Once the show was over and the Tellydot had been “activated”, you simply returned it to the place of purchase and waited for someone to call your landline with the life-changing news that you were $333,333 richer. 

As strange as this campaign sounds today, New Zealand wasn’t the only place where dot technology took over the telly. This small stick-on device was patented by German entrepreneur for a Dutch company in 1999 and introduced to Hungary and Portugal in early 2000, where it had a positive impact on TV ratings. It then became a global marketing phenomenon, with Australia’s “Adopt a Dot” running at the same time as the TV3 campaign, as Channel7 tried to hold onto record viewing numbers from the Sydney Olympics. 

But while faithful viewers like Wayne were dutifully sticking their dots on the telly, other New Zealanders were more sceptical. A NZ Herald TV review called it an “extraordinarily irritating promotion”, while pioneering members of an early Google group wondered “what type of person watches teledot programmes?” Some cunning viewers tried to beat the system by sticking the dot on the TV screen, muting the sound and simply walking away, while others fell deep into the Tellydots rabbit hole and questioned if this was a government plot to send secret signals through the television. 

As bonkers as it was, Tellydots was viewed as a success. It’s unclear what specific information (if any) TV3 gleaned from the dots, but an AdMedia news article from November 2000 quotes the CEO of the Tellydots promotion company as saying 10% of Tellydots were expected to be returned. This was “an excellent result” given TV3’s market share, while TV3 reported an “immediate” increase in ratings in the 18-49 target age group.  

An original Adopt-A-Dot currently for sale on Ebay (Photos: Ebay)

In 2023, where everything we watch on a screen is monitored and analysed and the algorithm is God, Tellydots belong to a time so innocent that it’s a wonder it even happened at all. The TV dot died out in 2003 (last seen in Poland), and sadly, we never Tellydotted in Aotearoa again. “I’ve been trying to find information on this for years… unfortunately it feels like it’s been wiped from existence (and everyone’s subconscious for that matter),” one Tellydot fan lamented online. 

In hindsight, Tellydots were ultimately nothing more than a clever marketing gimmick. But for those who remember, their brief moment on our screens symbolises the optimism of the early 2000s, when the pull of winning a portable CD player was stronger than logic or reason. “This was a load of shit, wasn’t it?” one Australian Reddit user recently wondered, as the light of time imprinted a new reality on their own photosensitive memory. “I think I pulled it apart and it was just layers of cardboard.” 

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