Dialing for Dollars

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In college, my favorite class was an English Lit survey of postmodern fiction from the '60s and '70s. We read novels by Pynchon, Coover, Barthelme and Robbins (Tom, not Harold) that broke the rules of narrative storytelling and toyed with the reality experienced by the reader.

I have come to appreciate my monthly phone bill as a kind of postmodern information artwork, for it is a document so intricate, impenetrable and detached from reality that it dances on the edge of Abstract Expressionism. My fees have fees, my monthly service charges have service charges, and I pay 10 cents a minute to call Schenectady, but only 7 cents a minute to call Anchorage, Alaska. My phone bill deserves an installation in the Museum of Modern Art.

Of course, every art form requires marketing. And so, with a few minor exceptions, current TV advertising for national and regional phone companies, from broad image campaigns down to the most specific services, qualifies as an industry-wide embarrassment. Case in point: the campaigns for "dial-around" calling services like 10-10-220 and 10-10-321, both owned by MCI WorldCom. The Picasso behind these particular shows is Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG (which is, I believe, the name of the book Lewis Carroll abandoned after Alice in Wonderland). One spot stars Dennis Miller and is entitled, poetically, "Bottled Water." (Most of these spots went off the air in late 2000.) MCI's broad branding campaign rests upon a central mnemonic device that links an example of what one dollar buys (bottle of water, piece of sushi, etc.) to the product, 20 minutes of long distance at 99 cents.

"Bottled Water" drops Miller inside a stagey, minimal environment, inexplicably dominated by five brightly-lit cold cases. He looks lost and frightened, like some poor bastard dying in a suburban dinner theater production of Waiting for Godot. Why is Dennis Miller here? Where is here? What happened to his patented, smirking, acerbic persona? The direction is clueless. We hop from wide to medium to closeup shots with the inelegance of a 1980s Bar Mitzvah video. The spot is not the runt of some healthier litter, but typical of a massive, multi-product campaign, which dispensed more than $250 million in the first half of 1998 alone. The dial-around industry, at $3 billion in revenues in 1999, grows furiously.

MCI's other 10-10-220 spots feature the same stultifying conception and execution, and murder the careers of everyone from football star Terry Bradshaw to Third Rock star French Stewart. MCI and Messner also perpetrate the insidious 1-800-COLLECT TV spots. The tagline, "Save a buck or two" is especially irksome, because its vague, deceptive, weasel wording (remember this from high school?) flouts logic, the truth and the law. The spots hammer those dial-around numbers into your head as though Bill Bernbach and David Ogilvy never lived. One might employ the phrase brainwashing to describe the corporate intent, but the effect is more brain-clogging, like a migraine.

I don't want to single Messner out for abuse. The 1-800-CALL-ATT spots are equally mind-numbing. And the Sprint long-distance ads from McCann force actress Sela Ward to commit interpretive dance steps so senseless and out of context my flesh literally crawls.

Lousy advertising? Yes, but a larger transgression applies: The dishonesty of both product and advertisement. Dial-arounds like 10-10-220 and 10-10-321 say they charge 99 cents for up to 20 minutes of connect time. But that's 99 cents for every single call. Some competing dial-arounds, like AT&T's Lucky Dog 10-10-345, charge hidden connection fees; others tack on hidden monthly access charges or hide restrictions on time periods and geographic areas.

Another fun fact: MCI conveniently leaves its name off these campaigns, pinning it on a generic subsidiary, Telecom USA. Wall Street analysts readily acknowledge that MCI is relying on customer ignorance, and the statistical likelihood that most calls will fall under 20 minutes, to drive profit margins. This deceit may help explain the mystery of why the advertising is so oblivious. Messner, of course, is not some redneck outfit. Its campaigns for Intel, Volvo, Philips and others range from the solidly creative to the sublime. My pet theory: Messner's creatives knew they were married to a crummy client with a morally ambiguous product, and unconsciously disconnected from their wetwork. Maybe this stumbly, jumbly, crumbly advertising is really karmic compensation for an unworthy product.

Creativity columnist Bruce Stockler is the former editor of Millimeter. His humor pieces have appeared in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times.

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