November 27, 2012

The voice that lingers


 Does this ad have any significance for you? Does it speak to you?

My choice of words there is no accident. We’ve become so used to the idea of free long-distance phone calls that it’s hard to remember back to the time when a long-distance call was a symbol of a special occasion. Back then, long distances calls not only weren’t free, they could also be quite expensive. Oh, there were the late night and weekend rates, which helped keep things manageable, and sometimes people would develop certain tricks to keep from paying at all.* But it’s important to remember that calling long distance was not something that we took for granted.

*A typical one involved calling person-to-person, which involved having the operator place the call from a specific person to a specific person. If that person weren’t available, the call would not be completed. Clever people found clever ways to insert hidden messages in the “I have a person-to-person call from Bruce to Jean” script of the operator that would enable the caller to get their point across without paying for it.

Take this ad on the back of a November 1962 TV Guide.* “It’s the moment that lingers, when you call someone long distance.” The accompanying picture presents us with a wonderful and mysterious tableau of a young woman, lost in the moment following such a call. Just who was it who called? Her fiancée, calling her from the big city in which he now works, telling her how much he misses her and wishes she were there? Her college boyfriend, relaying his plans for coming home for the holidays? Maybe a long-lost classmate, calling to relive memories the two shared when they were schoolgirls. Personally, I think the caller was male, but I’ll leave the final decision to you.

*Obviously, the timing of the ad – right after Thanksgiving – is no accident. Your phone company wants to remind you of what a great idea it would be to make someone’s holiday extra-special with a long distance call. Not only will it make you both feel good, it helps the company’s bottom line.

Having lived in the era when receiving a long distance call was something of an event, I can tell you of the powerful feelings they can produce. Later in the 60s the Bell System would introduce the ad slogan “Reach out and touch someone,” and you can tell from the look on this woman’s face that someone has done just that. But whoever the caller was and whatever the occasion, it’s obvious that it was a special one, one that didn’t happen very often, and its effects would not soon be forgotten.

It’s also a reminder, in this age of communication through email, Twitter, texting, et al of the power of la voix humain, the human voice. A voice can transmit sensations that printed words on the page can never match. Look at her face again – no matter how many letters she might have received from her beloved, none of them can compare to the sound of his voice. Long after she’s forgotten whatever it was that might have said, it’s the memory of that voice which is the moment that lingers.

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