Tuesday, May 03, 2005

An Old Article on Collect Calls

Another one I found that I thought was lost forever! This piece deals with the collect call commercial phenomenon, and features 7% more Carrot Top references than most anything else I write!

The Archives of Face Magazine Wisdom Weasel: Carrot Top Calling
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I have lived in the USA for eight years now and feel confident to proclaim myself assimilated. I can drink freezing beer without wincing. I no longer feel embarrassed having someone else bag my groceries. I have stopped muting the TV when NBC Nightly News comes on in order to provide subtitles for Tom Brokaw. Like my ancient Briton ancestors confronted by the tsunami of conquering Rome, I gave up resisting the waves of a dominant alien culture breaking over me. I have ceased to be the limpet and have become the jellyfish, rolling in the riptide of everyday ephemera, unharmed by the deep tissue trauma brought on by clinging too tightly to my stanchion in the face of an overwhelming force.
Much of the United States is self-explanatory. However, I would not have been able to understand large chunks of American culture without the assistance of my friends. In many situations, I felt like the proverbial Martian teleported into the middle of an incomprehensible scene until an associate explained things to me. Thanks to my cultural interpreters I now have a handle on such bizarre concepts as the Electoral College and New Hampshire.
That said, I need your help. There is one cultural phenomenon that I have not been able to figure out, either independently or through reference to my panel of judges. Therefore I have a question to pose to all Face readers.
Who is making all the collect calls?
“Just dial down the center. It could save you a buck or two.” It has been impossible to turn on the idiot box at any point in the last decade and not be assaulted with exhortations to make a collect call. Unlike the cheap long-distance commercials, which scrimp by with resurrected puppets, celebrity rednecks, and vehemently heterosexual baseball catchers, AT&T and MCI have mustered the big guns. Who can say no to Carrot Top?
While the commercials seem designed to appeal to lobotomized masturbators through the zany antics of David Arquette and the aforementioned prop comic, or the cat-suited curves of Alyssa Milano and Jamie Pressley, that surely cannot be the target demographic of the phone companies, can it? Any marketer worth his salt knows that lobotomized masturbators blow all their disposable income on Hustler and weed. Their parents would never accept collect calls from them anyway, as they are still counting their blessings that the Vermont Institute of Broadcasting & Bail Bonding agreed to take on their offspring for at least two years.
So let us assume that the marketers have their pitch slightly off, and while it looks as if they are shooting for Frat boys with brain injuries, they actually intend to appeal to the general college population.
There is one small problem: almost every college student has a cell phone. Students have thumbs as big as John Holmes’s moneymaker from text messaging and football players take calls on their cells on the sidelines during games. Campus phone booths, once cherished by any lecherous professor with a pocket full of quarters hunting for homesick co-eds, have now become quaint design artifacts by day and a combination urinal and rutting shed by night. Even students at UM Fort Kent (where until recently the most popular major was a BFA in Mashed Potato Sculpture) now use cell phones to check in with Grandma to see if their date is a first or second cousin.
One friend suggested members of the military. When taking a break from charging hell-for-leather after Al Qaeda in the Tora Bora, it’s just not convenient to search one’s ammo pouches for quarters in order to dial Mom and ask her to renew one’s subscription to Oprah magazine. Armor drivers often say one of the horrors of war is that when sitting in your Abrams tank, all one’s change falls out of one’s pockets and goes down between the .50 cal co-axial machine guns and the seat (which causes no end of embarrassed fumbling and strained back muscles at toll booths). Surely then, our troops must be the biggest users of collect call numbers.
Alas, no. As the recent Gulf War II illustrated, America’s military has no need of collect calls, thanks to a phenomenon called the “Geraldo-Phone.” Every time I turned to Fox News (as in ‘Fox News: Fairly Mentally Unbalanced’) for a little comic relief during the 24-hour-a-day Rambo-a-thon on the real channels, there would be little Geraldo Rivera visiting some front-line unit. After insisting that the top brass respected-him-no-really-loved-him, Gerald would collar some unsuspecting PFC and force him to use the Fox News video phone to call his pregnant wife/ girlfriend/ dog/ mule for a heart-warming chat that was beamed into the homes of the Religious Wrong from sea to shining sea. No comparable live footage existed of Carrot Top in the deserts of Iraq, approaching soldiers while pretending to be a rollerblader or psychiatrist, then suddenly producing a giant payphone with illuminated numbers. Based on that, it has to be surmised that the collect call industry is having little luck penetrating the military market.
I know one sector of society that does make collect calls with regularity: people in prison. When I used to work in radio, my station had a kick-ass metal show that attracted quite a following among the inmates of the Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport. Every Thursday night, the host would field collect calls from the inmates making requests. We learnt two things from our incarcerated audience: first, they were all innocent, and second, they only got to watch TV in the afternoon. Therefore, the effectiveness of the TV commercials has to be questioned. Carrot Top would be shived in the cafeteria after about five minutes. Jamie Pressley, while having the general air of a woman possessed of a mulleted boyfriend doing three years for robbery, would I suspect have little impact on a prison population whose exposure to women on television was restricted to soaps and re-runs of Full House. A more effective collect call commercial for prison inmates would feature John Stamos and Susan Lucci being held by their ankles in the shower block by wrongly convicted prisoners, in order to convince them to accept the charges.
The collect call companies, then, who really should pay me large sums of money to consult with them, are spending millions a year advertising a product predominantly associated with felons. The only parallel to this I can think of in American life is political campaign commercials.
Surely big corporations don’t waste money on bone-headed ideas, do they? This is where you come in. I want to hear your ideas on who is making all the collect calls. If you have a theory, email your phone number to Face.
I’ll call you collect to hear what you have to say.


mas said...

A very interesting point, Weasel - these commercials are much more prevalent now in the cell phone era than they were before it.

I used to make collect calls as a kid if I was at the movies or the mall (or even the beach) and needed my parents to pick me up. But you're right - it seems like a lot of kids now have their own cell phones, plus isn't the number of pay phones (locations for most collect calls, I'd guess) decreasing?

weasel said...

Maine Jim had a good post recently about pay phones (or rather the lack of). A real problem up here in Maine, where cell phone coverage is spotty but we are treated like we are part of the rest of the civilised world. As a curmudgeon who abhors talking on the phone (except to close friends and family) I 'd prefer an all email world, but I fear I'm in the minority.