One Question Quiz
Images: Supplied; design by Tina Tiller
Images: Supplied; design by Tina Tiller

SocietyDecember 22, 2023

The curious case of New Zealand’s weirdest ever corporate Christmas card

Images: Supplied; design by Tina Tiller
Images: Supplied; design by Tina Tiller

In December 1993 one of the country’s largest companies sent a unique festive greeting to its customers, kicking off a low-stakes mystery that’s now the subject of a six-part podcast series. 

One day in 2017 I was walking in downtown Auckland and stepped on a manhole cover, one of those long, rectangular ones that are set into footpaths in that part of the city. For some reason I glanced down and saw something that was to set me off on a long and frustrating journey: two dots, linked by a simple curved line. It was the logo of defunct phone company Clear Communications.

Immediately, a long-dormant memory came crashing over me like a tsunami.

It was just after 7pm, a few days before Christmas sometime in the early 90s. I would have been between nine and 11 years old. Paul Holmes was on the TV, giggling as he discussed a peculiar Christmas card recently received by customers of telecommunications giant Telecom NZ.

Holmes instructed the camera to show a close-up of the card’s artwork, which depicted what at first glance appeared to be an innocuous landscape scene. But hidden amongst the brushstrokes were two unusual features. One was Clear’s logo nestled on a hill. The other was a message barely visible in the grass: “TELECOM SUX”.

The logo of Telecom NZ (which became Spark NZ in 2014), and the words ‘TELECOM SUX’ hidden in the artwork.

This vague memory, sparked by a chance sighting of an old Clear logo on a manhole cover, wouldn’t let me go. I wondered who the artist was, and what on Earth possessed them to hide such snide jabs at their own client inside their artwork. So I did what anyone with a nagging question and a computer would do: I googled it. All of my queries yielded exactly zero results. There was NOTHING about this online.

I was now faced with a decision; drop it and move on with my life? Or keep digging?

Obviously, I kept digging.

The Clear Communications logo can just be discerned in a corner of the image.

I started by making enquiries about the Holmes clip with Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision, Aotearoa’s official media archive. Around the same time, I spent lunch hours with a microfiche reader at the Auckland Central Library, spooling through reels of historic newspaper pages searching for clues.

Eventually, I hit paydirt – twice, in fact. Not only had Ngā Taonga found the Holmes clip and could email me a copy, but I also unearthed an NZ Herald article from 23 December 1993 about the Telecom Sux Christmas card.

As it turns out, my memory was wrong. The Herald article included an interview with the artist, who emphatically denied adding the hidden messages. He was, understandably, mightily pissed off that his work had been desecrated in this way.

All of which left me with even more questions; if it wasn’t the artist, then who had tampered with the painting? How did they do it? And perhaps most intriguingly, why?

The writer with the card in question (Photo: Supplied)

In the five years since, these questions have continued to haunt me, sparking a long-running investigation into a bizarre mystery that hardly anyone in New Zealand still remembers. Around 12 months ago I joined forces with a friend, Luke Watkinson, pulling together everything we knew about the incident to produce a podcast series, Prank of the Year. We wanted to see if we could crack the case in time for its 30th anniversary.

Without getting too far into the weeds, here’s what we uncovered.

A gallery hit?

The painting used on the card was a finalist in the Telecom Art Awards, and was on display in the Otago Art Society gallery in Dunedin for a couple of weeks in October 1993. A report from the Otago Daily Times about the incident confirms that the gallery was supervised during the day but that “it was often rented out at night”. Could somebody with a grudge against Telecom have tampered with the painting while it was on display?

An inside job?

In February 1993 Telecom announced a record $121m profit for the previous quarter. In the same breath, they also announced that over the next four years, over 5,200 employees would lose their jobs.

Telecom’s Head Office in Wellington took possession of the painting after the exhibition in Dunedin had closed, and coordinated the print job to produce the Christmas cards. Reports on the incident refer to an internal investigation that cleared Telecom staff of any involvement. But what about former staff? Or staff that were on their way out the door?

The printers?

We know that the cards were printed in Wellington, but a Telecom spokesperson at the time refused to disclose which printing firm had been used for the job. After speaking to experts with knowledge of 1990s commercial printing processes, we found out that the painting most likely would have been scanned and a digital image file produced.

Interestingly, commercial scanners weren’t widespread in 1993, and the scanning was often outsourced to dedicated scanning facilities. Printers who didn’t have scanners on-site would work from the image file sent through from these specialised services.

The painting itself was defaced – which means the embellishments were scanned as part of the overall image. Whoever scanned the image (whether that was someone in-house at the Wellington printing firm, or at a different scanning site) would have been the last person with the opportunity to deface the artwork.

After five years of sleuthing, I feel like I’ve come closer than anyone ever has, and likely ever will do, to knowing what happened with Telecom’s 1993 Christmas card. This journey started with a vague memory and ended up as an opportunity to unearth a forgotten, low-stakes mystery from the dustbin of our cultural history and share it with folks all over the world.

As the 30th anniversary approaches, and with our series finale going live today, I’m finally closing the door on this baffling case. But I’m going to leave it slightly ajar, just in case anyone with any additional information wants to knock at it.

Know anything about the Telecom Sux card incident? The Prank of the Year podcast can be reached at

Keep going!