MCI LLC: 1-800-Collect campaign

Susan Risland


Before the 1980s the telecommunications giant American Telephone & Telegraph Corp. (AT&T) dominated the collect-call market by simply owning the majority of America's pay phones. After pressing "0" to make a collect call, consumers were automatically routed to AT&T operators. In 1993 MCI Communications Corporation changed the landscape with its 1-800-COLLECT program. By dialing MCI's toll-free number, callers were routed to MCI operators and bypassed AT&T's inflated rates. Hoping to undermine further AT&T's stronghold on the collect-call business, MCI released its "1-800-COLLECT" campaign, which targeted college students, military personnel, and the parents of both groups.

Created by the ad agency Messner Vetere Berger McNamee & Schmetterer (MVBMS), the "1-800-COLLECT" campaign included television, radio, and print mediums. Spots for the $112 million campaign first aired on May 19, 1993. Most collect calls were being made by young people calling home, and MCI hoped to encourage their families to pressure them into choosing the most affordable carrier. One print ad featured the headline "What's Out" above an earring in a pierced ear, a torso clothed in leopard-skin briefs, and an "OPER 0" telephone button. Below the headline "What's In" was a ring in a pierced nose, a torso clothed in stylish boxer shorts, and the slogan "1-800-COLLECT. America's inexpensive way to call someone collect." The text added, "Dial it instead of '0' and save up to 44 percent." MVBMS filmed commercials with celebrities such as the former talk-show host Arsenio Hall, actor David Spade, sitcom actress Alyssa Milano, and basketball legend Michael Jordan—all pitching the low cost of 1-800-COLLECT. Later spots did not even mention MCI, because the company believed that its brand was not needed to advertise the service. "1-800-COLLECT" spots aired until the end of 2001.