Abstract: Telephone Exchange: WATS, Direct-Response Selling, and the Marketization of the American Telephone, 1960-1973

Richard K. Popp


In 1967, the Chicago mail-order house Alden's took out a sprawling fifteen-page advertisement in the Saturday Evening Post to promote its newly unveiled ''jet phone system,'' a novel service that allowed shoppers to call in orders free of charge. Also that year, the Campaign Communications Institute set up shop in New York City to sell campaign services to political candidates. Among the firm's most popular products were its computerized calling programs, and before long CCI was marketing these services to more traditional merchandisers. Both ventures were outgrowths of an ambitious initiative launched by AT&T in 1961: Wide Area Telephone Service (WATS). Designed to stimulate greater use of the telephone in sales and marketing, the program initially allowed subscribers to place an unlimited number of long-distance calls for a flat fee. In 1967, In-WATS was added to reverse the flow, allowing callers to dial a subscriber's line toll free. WATS was wildly popular with businesses and by 1973 amounted to a more than $750 million trade for the Bell System. By that point ''junk calls'' and ''800'' numbers were highly familiar—in the case of the former, perhaps all too familiar—features of the consumer landscape. In short, WATS gave rise to modern telemarketing and phone-based shopping, in the process imbuing the nation's telecommunication infrastructure with the topsy-turvy dynamics of marketplace exchange. Drawing on industry reports, trade news, and archival records, this paper will explore the rise of WATS-based selling initiatives in the 1960s and early 1970s. In doing so, we can see how the lines between state and market were increasingly blurred as U.S. communication infrastructure was recast from pseudo-public utility to ''postindustrial'' entrepreneurial resource. Moreover, we can better understand the place of direct-response systems within the information infrastructures, logistical networks, and business cultures remaking consumer capitalism at the time.