Landline Week: The Long Distance and Collect Call Wars

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Commercials on MTV in the late 1990s covered everything that teenagers loved: Clearasil, Mountain Dew, Playstation, Doritos, and of course telephone codes. Long distance and collect call commercials were a mainstay for about five years on teen oriented television, and if you’re currently in your 30s you probably know what it means to dial down the center and call 1-800-C-O-L-L-E-C-T. It was a wild time to be alive.

A lot of these collect call and long distance code related memories had been been tucked away in a rarely accessed corner of my brain for the last 18 years until I did a podcast on the year 1994 and watched a lot of 90s commercial compilations for research. David Arquette, Carrot Top, and Mr. T popped up everywhere. I blew all of the dust off of that corner of my brain and started unpacking memories. Like the memory of cell phones still being relatively rare in my first couple of years of college, and heading off for my Freshman year armed with a long distance code that I used to call my mom every Sunday (something I still do sans code) and my grandmother somewhat less frequently (something I do not do because she passed away in 2006). When it came to long distance or collect call codes I didn’t take the time to consider my options and instead went with the one recommended by my school, like a dope. I never even took into account Carrot Top’s opinion. I’m going to remedy that now by looking at some of the entrants in the mid to late 90s long distance and collect call wars.


I considered making this reveal later in the piece but I want to lay all my cards down for readers. While doing some research for this piece I discovered that 10-10-321 and 10-10-220 (and 10-10-987 but I don’t remember that one) were owned by the same company, Telecom USA (a subsidiary of MCI). While I’m sure the choice of which to go with largely boiled down to aesthetics anyway, in reality it was wholly an aesthetic choice since 10-10-321 was just 10-10-220 reskinned, and vice versa. If your aesthetic preference was sitcom stars from the 70s and 80s 10-10-321 was your brand. In addition to Harry Anderson (RIP) above, Tony Danza, John Lithgow, Reginald VelJohnson, and Tom Bosley (RIP again) were featured.


Just kidding! 10-10-220 commercials were also populated with 70s and 80s sitcom stars! Choice is an illusion! However, if you choose to associate with Alf, 10-10-220 is your jam. You also learned via the 10-10-220 commercials that somewhere at some point a focus group overwhelmingly voted for more commercials pairing Alf with former NFL players. There was more than one, which is at least one more than I’d have ever expected to see. Also do you think the guy in the commercial’s girlfriend is planning to break up with him?

1-800-CALL ATT

Hell yeah, it’s collect call time. I of course know what collect calls are. They’re what you get in prison, but not what you get one of when you’re arrested. I think that one’s free but I’ve never been arrested so I could be wrong.

We’ve finally reached the Carrot Top portion of the proceedings, and with him one of the many telephone related slogans that have stayed with me since and will probably be the last thoughts I have in this lifetime. Dial down the center. CALL ATT. Don’t think about the fact that “220” also involves dialing down the center. Just push that thought right out of your brain and replace it with Carrot Top coaching soccer.


I really, really wanted to use the Stone Cold Steve Austin/D-Lo Brown 1-800-COLLECT commercial above but it felt wrong not to go with Mr. T. Sure, technically other people appeared in commercials for 1-800-COLLECT but the only real spokesman for the company was Mr. T. Not, Ed O’Neill and not Stone Cold. If Mr. T’s schtick ever gets old to you I’m afraid you might as well quit society. Mr. T is a national treasure. And this commercial is pretty good! It has a Dick Dale-ish guitar track, a young woman who kind of looks like Shannon from Lost who Mr. T calls “lady,” and a fun bit with a metal detector and Mr. T’s chains. For all of these reasons if I ever had to make a phone call from prison I would have used 1-800-COLLECT.


I didn’t lay down all my cards after all. Remember the commercial where a man calls his father to announce the birth of his child and places a collect call from WEHADABABYITSABOY? Well if not you can find it below. And if you watch until the end you find out it’s not a commercial for CALL ATT or 1-800-COLLECT but instead for Geico. Yep, Geico. Hey maybe you already knew that but it threw me for a loop.

What were your favorite 90s long distance code commercials? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter.

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  1. There’s one that I can’t remember. The service required dialing “00,” and the 90’s TV commercial had a repurposing of Pilot’s Magic. (“Oh, oh; it’s magic. You knowww.)


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