‘Not Happy Jan’: TV ad’s cult success 20 years on

 

 

It was a simple enough premise. A low-level employee forgets to place her company's ad in the Yellow Pages - a major snafu in the days before Google searches - and dutifully legs it out of her office rather than face the wrath of her boss.

She is almost out of earshot when we hear one furious missive through a jammed window.

"Not Happy Jan!"

It was a commercial that first aired in September 2000 - exactly 20 years ago - and would slowly build into something far greater than just a television spot playing on the gag of an employee's negligence.

It would become nothing short of an Australian cultural touchstone.

The line itself - delivered by acclaimed Aussie actor Deborah Kennedy - was coined by an art director named Tony Greenwood.

Actor Deborah Kennedy as the boss in scene from Yellow Pages ‘Not Happy Jan TV commercial.
Actor Deborah Kennedy as the boss in scene from Yellow Pages ‘Not Happy Jan TV commercial.

Developed by the Melbourne arm of established agency Clemenger BBDO, the 30-second 'spot' was overseen by Ant Shannon who recalls that day.

"We had Tony and another art director named Sarah Barclay working on the campaign which was unusual … because usually you only have one creative person working on a project," says Shannon, who was creative director at Clemenger at the time.

"But Yellow Pages were known as a very creative client and, at the time, they had a history of winning a lot of awards."

The idea - or intended goal - was to transform the Yellow Pages from an annoying lump of banana-hued pulp dumped on every doorstep once-a-year into something Australians held dear.

"So we knew the ad had to be highly entertaining and would somehow connect the viewer to the product emotionally," Shannon says.

"As a result we developed this concept of 'scare tactics', you know. What a disaster it would be if someone forgot to place an ad in the Yellow Pages. And then have to endure a whole year without it there. What that would mean."

Advertising guru Ant Shannon who helped come up with the Not Happy Jan ad.
Advertising guru Ant Shannon who helped come up with the Not Happy Jan ad.

With the blueprint of the commercial laid out, the Clemenger team then came to the 'line' and a stream of suggestions followed.

"But then Tony says it …'Not Happy Jan'. And Tony is from Yorkshire in England so he has this really thick accent," Shannon recalls.

"And the way it came out … everyone in the room just burst out laughing.

"We all thought it was hilarious.

"So we presented it to the client and they thought it was hilarious.

"And then the ad came out and the early feedback we got was that it was just 'mildly amusing'. So at that point we had no idea that the ad would become famous.

"It was just a funny little commercial and it kind of went away."

Indeed the cult success of the Not Happy Jan ad would be something of a slow burn.

Deborah Kennedy, who delivered the fabled line through that grimy window, remembers her first inkling that something was rumbling beneath the surface.

"It was some time after the ad started to air and I was playing Gertrude in Hamlet opposite Jeremy Sims (at Belvoir Street Theatre) and it came to the famous scene where Hamlet says to Gertrude 'What's the matter?' and Gertrude says 'Your father is not happy with you' or 'your father is offended' or something like that.

"Well, we had a school audience on this particular day and boy did they let us have it," she laughed.

"They start singing out 'Not happy Hamlet!'.

"That's when I remember thinking; 'Oh my god … how am I ever going to get away from this commercial?

"It started to feel like that episode of The Simpsons where Bart says 'I didn't do it'. And for the rest of his life that's all anyone wants him to say.

"That was me. I was Bart Simpson."

Deborah Kennedy (left) in a Sydney Theatre Company stage show Arms and the Man.
Deborah Kennedy (left) in a Sydney Theatre Company stage show Arms and the Man.

Like The Simpsons, the cult of 'Not Happy Jan' had its early inceptions as something of an underground schoolyard gag before filtering out to the mainstream.

Before long it was just part of the Australian lexicon - the default Aussie alternative to swearing - the curse you could say without cursing.

"Like swearing at your kids without swearing. It just took on a life of its own … it was everywhere," says Kennedy, who admits she is often wrongly credited for coining the line.

"It was most definitely not my creation. It was in the script but I do remember saying it about 300 times the day we shot that ad."

Another obscure factoid - she says - is that the jammed window was not part of the script and instead a gift sent by the TV comedy gods.

"It was a very old building in Surry Hills (located on the corner of Devonshire and Chalmers streets) and it just happened that this window was this horrible thing that only opened a few inches. But it certainly added to the humour and the frustration of the moment.

Deborah Kennedy was made famous 20 years ago in the Yellow Pages ad. Picture: David Swift
Deborah Kennedy was made famous 20 years ago in the Yellow Pages ad. Picture: David Swift

"It was a very lucky accident."

Incredibly, 20 years on, 'Not Happy Jan' continues to live on according to Shannon who says he hears it referenced "in some way or another" every couple of months.

The ad (which ironically never won any major advertising awards) also marked what he says was the end of an era of sorts, with the advent of the internet in the early 2000s bringing a close to the might and clout that television advertising once wielded.

"Back then if you wanted to communicate with people it had to be on television and a campaign had to be good enough that it would build its own momentum as opposed to the 'viral' campaigns you see today," says Shannon, who now runs his own agency responsible, most-recently, for the seminal Kmart rebranding in 2016.

"TV ads had to be talked about and they had to capture attention.

"Nowadays there's nowhere near that pressure on TV advertising.

"These days advertising is aimed toward data-based communication platforms like Facebook and Instagram and skewed at very specific markets.

"I remember going to a mate's house and we'd sit around talking about great TV commercials we had seen but you definitely don't get that so much anymore.

"Which makes me feel extremely lucky to have been in the situation I was in 20 years ago … that's for sure."

Originally published as 'Not Happy Jan': TV ad's cult success 20 years on

Headlines