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July 6, 2019

The Era of the 1-900 Numbers: The Weirdest 1-900 Hotline Commercials From the 1980s and 1990s

There was a time when shoulderpads were big, ties were skinny, and it was $2 for the first minute, $1.95 for the following.

1-900 numbers weren't just for sex lines and psychics (thought they were probably mostly used for that). They were a way of transmitting information for money in a pre-Internet world for things like jokes, music, games, and fan club information.

Most of us probably still associate those 1-900 numbers with the TV commercials we’d see airing late at night on the cable networks like USA, back in the 1980s and ’90s. The typically low-budget but usually legit TV commercials — often advertising adult phone-sex hotlines — were sometimes so hilariously awful that they were easy targets for parodying, and soon faked-up 1-900 commercials began to show up on late night TV shows, like “Night Flight,” sometimes making it difficult to tell if the commercial was for a legit 1-900 number, or not. Sometimes.

We thought it would be fun to look at some of the best 1-900 TV commercials from the 1980s and 199os that we could find — unfortunately we have to select them from the ones that have been compiled by VHS tapers and uploaded to Youtube accounts, but trust us, there were hundreds of these ads, and hopefully we’ve found some of the better ones that you can find online.

1-900 numbers were actually created in the early 1970s, and were originally part of the regional phone company services that were offered that would provide information that you would be required to pay for, but one early example that ran nationally and was not connected to any type of business or service (or was, depending how cynical you are about politics), was the 1-900 number set up in 1980, which allowed viewers at home, watching a presidential debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan on the NBC network (partnering with AT&T, some sources say it was ABC, and perhaps it was available to all three of major networks?).

Viewers called in and they were given two additional phone numbers — they were told to dial one number if they thought Carter was winning the debate, and another if they thought Reagan was winning. Of course, this was later modified after touchtone phone pads replaced rotary phones, where you could push either “1” or “2,” but at the time, you actually had to hang up, and call a separate number to voice your opinion about your candidate’s performance — and believe it or not, voters actually did this!

Typically, though, businesses would offer a 1-900 number as an additional part of their service, but then companies started realizing that they could come up with 1-900 for just about anything, and as long as they were people sitting at home who were willing to pay for it, realizing they would split any of the profits with the phone companies who did the billing and provided the numbers.

Usually the voiceover announcer in the TV commercial would point out the call would cost a little bit more — sometimes $2.99 for the first minute and 99 cents for each additional minute, or a flat rate in the neighborhood of $3 or $4-per minute, for example — and if the ad was one that was targeted to or at least might be seen by juveniles under the age of eighteen, they were always told to get their parents’ permission before dialing the number. Most of the time, kids did not do this.

The 1-900 prefix on premium phone numbers meant that phone companies treated them the same way they treated toll-free 1-800 numbers, regardless of the area code they were calling from; the caller would be simply charged a higher-than-normal per-minute long distance-type rate for the 1-900 numbers, and those rates would apply for however long he or she spent on the call, chatting with the hot chick they’d seen in hot tubs in the commercials was toweling off, or so we’ve been told (the 900 numbers followed by 976 were always the most scandalous ones).

(via Night Flight)



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