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Close By If You Need Her

The District Line

By Bill Gold

©Washington Post, 1-11-1964

THE FIRST advertisement that hits your eye as you open the new issue of Life centers your attention on the face of a woman who is wearing a telephone headset. The woman has an appealing face. It's not the Hollywood painted doll type of appeal, and you can see character in that face. Intelligence and understanding, too. There are a few lines in the brow, and just a hint of advancing years around the eyes and mouth. But it's a good face, and the reader learns from the text that this is the face of a Bell System telephone operator who is always "close by if you need her, no matter what the hour."

Margaret Draper

It's very comforting, very effective. But it's disturbing, too. There's something different here. This isn't the bright-eyed girl of 19 we're used to seeing in telephone ads. This isn't the peaches-and-cream wholesome beauty to whom we're accustomed; it's a mature woman. And in the few seconds during which the reader studies her, he comes to the realization that one of the world's largest corporations has made a deliberate change in its advertising policy.

I was intrigued by my discovery, and immediately put in a phone call to a company spokesman. My questions were bucked along to headquarters in New York, and the answers came back promptly and frankly: the Bell System has indeed made a basic change in its advertising policy.

Instead of the idealized beauties of the past, we're now going to see more believable models. They'll be "more realistic," closer to the average, more readily identifiable with living, breathing human beings.

Attractive young people are fun to have around, and they're often useful, too. But any large company must also have its dedicated old-timers-the folks who know the importance of dependable service and who can give training and guidance to the youngsters who are Just coming into the employe pipeline.

So the Bell System has concluded that a more, mature face in its ads will more truly depict the "average" employe. And because the emphasis in its ads will now shift from idealization to realism, the company hopes that the ads will be more believable, and therefore more effective.

This promises to be a fascinating experiment, and it may have far-reaching consequences. Imagine the impact among professional models and advertising agencies. Think of the changes that may take place in TV commercials, in advertising generally, and in salesmanship itself, for that matter.

Will the public be as mature as this new breed of model? Will people respond to this kind of soft-keyed approach? We'll have to wait and see.

This was always one of my favorite ads that my mother featured in. Even as a child I realized the irony - since Mom was a single parent and a career woman, I was raised largely by nannies, relatives and boarding schools. But she did everything she could for me given her circumstances, and with a 60-year retrospective, the caption is pretty darn accurate.

I can't speak to Gold's analysis - the caprices of Marketing are much less like a pendulum than like a balloon which has been untied and let go. Sometimes it's maturity, sometimes its heroin chic, and sometimes it's WTF. But I like the ad, and Gold's write-up is very complimentary.

And, for what it's worth, these days the picture tends to evoke this story in my mind. True or not - (Snopes claims "undetermined", but I like to think it really happened) - I think it's a nice fit.

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Oct. 21st, 2010 11:35 pm (UTC)
When I saw the picture, I immediately thought of "Information Please." It's one of my favorite stories.

I think it comes from the picture. She has a very motherly look. This is the face of an operator who cares about the people who call. This is the face of Sally; in fact, she's almost exactly how I picture Sally whenever I read the story.
Oct. 28th, 2010 04:15 pm (UTC)
what should I say to this.
I don't want to sound like a grump. I WAS a 411 and "0" for BellSouth/AT&T. I was the voice for 16 years and then they terminated me because I was to slow. They wanted 20.8 SECONDS on the average per call . I was 22.8. seconds. They fired me on the grounds of poor productivity. That is the official reason. I have Crohns so make your own conclusions.How much can you be there in 20.8? Sorry about the rant. They will keep it for as long as they think it is making them money. Sorry about the rant
Oct. 29th, 2010 12:55 am (UTC)
No need to apologize. The Marketing face often belies the internal reality of any company. In other words, horsehockey.

May have been somewhat different in the early 60's, but I know my experience with operators has been less than favorable of late. Now that everyone is cellular, for the most part, the concept of the "operator" has gone completely by the wayside.

Despite any lack of resemblance to actual events, you have to admit it's a master stroke as an ad campaign. I appreciate hearing "the rest of the story..."



The Old Wolf

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