March 1, 2017

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 fiancĂ©e, 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 been said, it’s the memory of that voice which is the moment that lingers.

4 comments:

  1. Excellent column, brought back memories of not just the 60's but the 70's and early 80's as well.

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  2. You do realize, of course, that the woman in the ad is an actress/model, being instructed by the photographer in how she's supposed to look as she's "taking the call"; in the same session, she could be just as easily expressing joy at a birthday call from her family, or hysterics at winning Little Lotto, or sympathy for bad news of any sort, or however many variations that the ad guys could come up with that day.

    During this same time frame, Mad magazine used to do elaborate parodies of these kinds of ads.
    One in particular that I remember showed a middle-aged man in a motel room, making a call and saying the following:

    "That's right, operator - long distance, person-to-person to Irving Finster ..."

    And beneath:

    There goes crafty old Irving Finster ... bilking the phone company by making a long-distance person-to-person call to himself a free way to let his family know he arrived safely!

    The layout, photography, and fonts were an exact duplicate of the ad you've put up here; this was a specialty of Mad's long-time art director, John Putnam.

    I remember the Mad parody from my childhood - I mustn't have been more than 12 when I saw it - and I got the point perfectly.

    So there too.

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  3. Really enjoyed this piece - it's amazing how much can be communicated - both intentionally and unintentionally - in a simple ad like this. What strikes me about it beyond your observations is the brownish-ness - her dress, the lamp in the background, the walls, the couch. I'd guess that was to denote she was working-class, as was the person who called her - so for them a long distance call was a special moment and not something to be taken for granted. Bell Telephone may have hoped other working class families would see it and be inspired to take the hit on their phone bill to see how grandma or Uncle Steve is doing.

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  4. If you think that was bad, picture calling internationally (outside the US/Canada). If wasn't even possible to direct-dial until the late 70's, and as you can imagine, stupid expensive - even nights and weekends. Figure 5-10 times the cost, which you got billed even if the connection was (typically) poor or even inaudible. If a not necessarily the phone overseas rang, you got charged for at least a minute. And we're talking England/Europe, anywhere else even worse. Obviously you're not calling to say ''Merry Christmas'', pretty much life and death only.

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