When Collect Calling Ruled The Airwaves


I was watching the basketball game the other night, and during one of the many commercial breaks, I couldn’t help noticing how many ads there were for various cell phone data plans, trumpeting higher speeds, and the relative superiority of their networks, and on and on and on… THIS one doesn’t lock you into a contract! THAT one offers unlimited text! This OTHER one has the fastest data network in the country! This one HERE says it’s the most reliable!

So many phones, so many carriers, so many data plans, so much technical jargon to absorb! It’s enough to make a person of a certain age long for the simpler days when there were no such commercials, because cell phones were strictly for rich people and assholes, and the rest of us were forced to use olde-tymey phones with cords and no touchscreens that didn’t vibrate or send text messages or provide turn-by-turn directions to restaurants it recommended itself.

Of course, the networks did not just show test patterns before cell phone commercials came along. Just as cell phones made landlines obsolete, cell phone commercials displaced the many, many commercials for long-distance and collect-calling plans, which by my scientific estimate accounted in the ’90s or 96.9% of all commercials.

For a long time, 1-800-COLLECT occupied this space unchallenged, trumpeting that you could “Save up to 44%!” on collect calls. Eventually, the slogan was dumbed down to “Save a buck or two!” but I would argue that to most lazy motivationally challenged Americans, a buck or two is not worth all the trouble of dialing eleven extra digits, particularly if you’re not the one saving the buck or two.

Then 1-800-CALL ATT came along to contest 1-800-COLLECT’s hoarding of the ultra-lucrative collect calling market. “Know the code!” was their slogan, but since “COLLECT” is a lot easier code to know than “CALL ATT,” they switched to “Dial down the center!,” because CALL ATT dials as 225-5288, and 2, 5, and 8 are in the middle of the three-column keypad on olde-tymey phones.

It wasn’t too long after that that long-distance calling options started popping up: “Dial 10-10-220 before the number you’re calling! Calls up to 20 minutes are only 99 cents!” Then there was 10-10-321, and 10-10-900, and on and on, a numeral soup of calling options promising to save us money on our long-distance calls. This was after Sprint and MCI had been advertising reduced-rate long-distance calling for years, so having to dial a seven-digit prefix before dialing the actual number (we used to actually dial entire phone numbers every time we made a phone call, sometimes on *gasp* rotary phones) seemed shady, especially when the extra seven digits didn’t spell anything clever.

You see, kids, at one time phone bills were divided into local and long-distance calls, and long-distance calls were very spendy. A phone bill could be a source of enormous contention in shared households. Roommates who otherwise got along famously would come to blows over the culprit in a 25-minute mystery call to Wilmington, Delaware or wherever. And God forbid a 976 number (usually a phone sex service and always four times the normal long-distance rate) turned up on one of those phone bills — someone might have to move out.

In my freshman year of college, I completely cut off contact with a close friend I’d made a few months prior because I discovered he’d used my dorm-room phone to call home, to call his girlfriend, to call God knows who, and ran my bill up over $100. (That’s 1991 college freshman dollars.) Never talked to him again. Long distance calls were a precious commodity is what I’m saying.

Now that we can all call Kandahar or Melbourne or Walla Walla, Washington for the same price on our cell phones, this all seems quaint, but even at the time I wondered who was making so many collect calls that it should be the most hotly contested sliver of commerce in television advertising. I don’t think I made more than two collect calls in my whole life — it seemed to be something you only did in emergencies, like if your car broke down on the highway and you didn’t have change for the pay phone, or you got thrown in jail, or you were being chased by wolves and fed them your wallet in hopes it might distract them long enough to close the phone-booth door. (We used to have something called a “phone booth.”) Under those kind of circumstances, saving up to (the “up to” obviously meaning “less than”) 44% is not a high priority, particularly not for a two-minute call.

10-10-220 was not a collect call service, just a long-distance service, and it trumpeted that all calls up to 20 minutes were only 99 cents. Isn’t that adorable, and weird to think about? Before text messages, people used to talk on the phone!  And 20-minute-plus phone calls were common enough to be mentioned in commercials! What did they talk about? I only remember this period dimly, and I’ve long been told that I have a very brusque, let’s-get-this-over-with manner on my own phone calls, so I can only speculate. Did they talk about their feelings? Their hopes? Their dreams? The Iran-Contra scandal? Who shot J.R.?  I don’t think my last 50 phone calls would add up to 20 minutes.

Weirdly, these services seemed to be a unique draw for celebrity endorsements, even in the ’90s, when the grunge generation disdained advertising and equated it to selling out. I recall Jay Leno taking a lot of flack for appearing in a bunch of Doritos commercials right after he got the Tonight show. What does he need the money for? Could there be anything America needs less than more snacks? That kind of thing.

httpv://youtu.be/ti73SgrLadU

 

Bill Hicks was not quite a mainstream act when he recorded this rant, and I think the extremity of his position on the issue may have been part of the reason for that, but it does reflect a growing sensitivity in the culture at the time to artists *air quotes*selling out*air quotes,* and a disdain in young people for the ones who did it in the crassest form: by appearing in a commercial on TV. You do a commercial, you’re off the artistic roll call.

All that seems to have gone out the window when 1-800-COLLECT, or 1-800-CALL ATT, or 10-10-220 came calling, though. There are some surprising, (and some not so surprising) names that sullied themselves with 1-800-COLLECT:

Phil Hartman and Chris Rock. This one kind of breaks my heart. Phil Hartman was, in my opinion, the single most talented cast member ever on Saturday Night Live. NewsRadio was the most underrated sitcom of the ’90s, and there should be a statue of him in the lobby wherever they do The Simpsons; even if he were still alive and celebrating his 15th year as Ronald McDonald’s TV chauffeur, he’s got a free pass from me. All Chris Rock does is stick his head out the window to goose the star power up a notch; I can’t decide if that’s better or worse.

Buffy and Angel. In character! Gross! It undermines Joss Whedon’s whole achievement and taints everything he’s done since including the highest-grossing movie ever! They sure did make a handsome couple, though.

The Simpsons. Seems shocking until you remember that Bart was the Butterfinger spokesman for quite a while there. And he had a video on MTV. And there was almost nothing you couldn’t buy with his face on it if you were so inclined. Right in the midst of their prime (seasons 3-7, obviously)!

Mr. T. Not shocking, not disappointing. I’m sure Mr. T made an uncomfortably heartfelt pitch to be the permanent 1-800-COLLECT spokesman, and I would pay $1,000 for video of that pitch. $1,200 if it was in 3D.

Ed O’Neill. He was still on Married… With Children at the time, which makes it very difficult to suspend disbelief and accept him as an officer in the Phone Patrol. Can’t really get mad at someone from Married… With Children for cashing in, though.

If memory serves, 1-800-COLLECT finally found its Maytag Repairman, its Ronald McDonald, in the person of Alyssa Milano’s unforgettable character Eva Savealot. She was a private eye or something, and knew how to make third-party long-distance calling just sexy enough to stay on daytime TV.  

1-800-CALL ATT’s roster is a little less impressive: Paul Reiser, David Arquette, and a bunch a faceless young slackers. I did find this one interesting, though, because the subtext of the whole ad is the whole don’t-tell-me-what-to-do ’90s anti-consumerist ethic I mentioned earlier, under a totally not dated slathering of Extreme Sports! culture:

httpv://youtu.be/9wE9fpO2PZI

The kicker came when I realized the voiceover was by none other than Janeane Garofalo, the poster girl for the whole don’t be a sellout, be suspicious of corporatism in all its forms, ethos. “I’m not trying to be bossy,” she says nonthreateningly, before closing with a singsongy “but if you use 1-800-CALL ATT you’ll save some money!” Familiar as I am with her work — I even nursed a little crush on her at the time — I found this one surprising. I’m sure she got paid well and I’m sure at the time she needed the money, and I have no axe to grind with her, but still: weird, huh?

10-10-220’s lineup had a couple of eyebrow-raising names on its call sheet:

Dennis Miller. This was the first moment I realized one of my favorite comedians (thanks entirely to his run as “Weekend Update” anchor) might not be that cool. Time would prove those suspicions righter than I could have imagined.

Christopher Lloyd. Since he’s driving a cab, we can agree that this is a toned-down reprise of Reverend Jim Ignitowski, right? Like post-rehab Jim? That’s kind of sad. Like when Richard Dreyfuss reprised his character from Jaws in Piranha 3D and got eaten in the first five minues. (Note: This is not a joke, it really happened.) It’s one thing to do a commercial, but isn’t it worse to drag your beloved character into it? (See also: Buffy and Angel.)

George Carlin. This one is so heartbreaking it actually caused a stir at the time, and Carlin even talked about it onstage. Maybe he thought — maybe they all thought — who cares, it’s an easy paycheck. Maybe he rationalized it, like it’s not like this is some kind of Earth-raping capitalist conspiracy, it’s one company buying telecom access from another and selling it at their own price — who’s getting hurt? What’s the harm?

Whatever they thought, it turns out they were right, or at least, not so wrong, because nobody remembers any of these commercials now, probably because they were for an industry that’s vanished entirely. And anyway, they were ahead of the curve, Ms. Garofalo in particular, because uncredited celebrity voiceovers are all the rage in TV commercials right now. They think I don’t hear them, but I do!

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