The wildly successful ad campaign ran in print and on the air, and one of the ads — “Joey Called” (included below) even made it on to Entertainment Weekly’s 1997 list of the 50 Best Commercials of all time.
So where did this little success story get its start? It turns out that the campaign’s central “reach out and touch someone” line dates back to at least 1971 — but it didn’t become the star of the show until the ads we all remember started up around 1979.
Back in 1985, writer Susan Gurevitz talked about the successful AT&T campaign with Richard Keith, executive VP and creative director at Mel Richman Marketing Communications for the Philadelphia Daily News.
“Take the well-known, ongoing AT&T long-distance ‘Reach out and touch someone’ campaign. When that was developed by N.W. Ayer back in the mid-1970s, the line had been used before in a print campaign, Keith recalled. He was creative director of the long-distance group at the time. The phrase was put to music along with four other possibilities. “Reach out and touch someone” was not the client’s favorite,’ he said. ‘They wanted, “Keep in touch, America.”‘
She says that even though the telecommunications giant preferred the USA-centric slogan, “He begged AT&T to let him test the phrase along with the favorite again. ‘Reach out and touch someone’ was preferred 2 to 1, he said. And the rest, as they say, is history. ‘My major contribution was not thinking of it, but simply fighting for something at the right time,’ he said.”
It was another creative mind that set it to music — in particular, the earworm of a tune that persists in memory even more than 40 years later.
“… David Lucas, the specialist who composed the music for ‘Reach out and touch someone,’ says, ‘I know that a lot of people who write hit songs look down on commercial work, but the fact is that most of them couldn’t do this kind of work if they tried to. You need sincerity, and you need the research capacity of the mind, and also you need conciseness — I would say that conciseness is the essence of the craft — and then you have to make it all lovely.’ Still, there’s a kernel of truth in what he says.”
Lehmann-Haupt added, “To indulge myself in one small sneer: If, as Lucas the composer says, it took ‘genius’ to ‘extend the basic concept’ of ‘Reach out and touch someone’ to ‘reach out, reach out and touch someone’ (“That extra ‘reach out’ made certain things feasible, musically, that weren’t feasible before.”), then Michael Arlen is a Leonardo for having extended the concept of the 30-second commercial to a rich adventure in living prose.”
Reach out and touch someone: Chicken soup via telephone (1979)
Too far away to bring the chicken soup? Well, how about some advice and good cheer by telephone? Wherever you are, you’re never too far away to let the patient know you care. Your phone call could be the best medicine there is. Reach out and touch someone. Someone who’s waiting to share your day.
A fish story (1982)
“Yeah, I used your special fly. No!… It’s bigger than that! Granddaddy of that one Harry got last year. I’d say it’s about… well, let’s just say it’s lucky we all like fish.” A laugh. A smile. A fish story. Reach out and keep faraway friends part of your life.
Reach out and touch someone: Tooth fairy (1979)
He’s really proud of himself. Lost a tooth right up front and cashed in with the tooth fairy. Fifty cents’ worth. Now talk to his cross-country friend and fill him in on the news. But it seems that his buddy is a veteran of the tooth fairy game himself! Share your life with faraway family and friends. They’ll be thrilled to hear from you. Reach out and touch someone. Give ’em a call.
Reach out and touch someone: The best tennis player (1982)
Looks like your days for bragging bout being the best tennis player in the house are numbered. She’s something! “Oh, Dad! It’s no big deal.” But you know how she feels, you’ve been there. And you want to tell the world. So go ahead. Reach out.
Wedding: Sister’s big day is only weeks away.
You’ve always been close. And when you found out you couldn’t make that shower, you knew it could spoil her day. So you call, and a family heirloom changes hands. With love. Wonderful, isn’t it, how a simple phone call from far away can make everything just great. Reach out and touch someone who’s waiting to share her day.
“Joey called” (1981)
Reach out and touch someone: A grandmother’s love (1981)
There’s something really special about a grandmother’s love. It communicates. Even to the grandchild she hasn’t seen. No matter what she says, he understands. And even though he only gurgles back, his sounds have really made her day. Wonderful, isn’t it, how a simple phone call can bring your family closer together. Reach out and touch someone who’s waiting to share your day.
AT&T Reach Out and Touch Someone TV commercial (1979)
Her first high heels (1980)
“Mom said it was from my fairy godmother. I thought ‘Could it be?’ Oh yes! I love em. I’ve been begging for heels just forever. Yes. Yes. They fit. They’re just like the ones I wanted. Oh, Mom told you, didn’t she? They’ll really go with my new dress for the dance. I feel like Cinderella already! Thanks, Aunt Connie.”
Though family and friends move far apart, you can continue to grow together. Just reach out and walk back into each other’s lives.
Reach out and touch someone: Engaged (1980)
Just listen to them. “She’s the first!” “I knew it! I knew it!”
“Have they set the date?” You want to tell the world. But first, you have to share it with the gang. You’ve shared perfume and clothes. secrets and dreams–the silly and the serious. And this is serious. There it is. bigger than life. on the third finger of your left hand. Reach out to faraway family and friends. Big news or just a “hello” they love hearing from you.
Calling 2000 miles for a recipe
She’s busy in the kitchen. but the recipe she wants is a continent away. So two old friends put their heads together with a phone call and agree on the ingredients. You can call a faraway friend to find out what’s cooking or just to say hi.
Dial the One-Plus way to any other state, except Alaska and Hawaii, after 5 p.m. Ten minutes won’t cost more than $2.57 (plus tax); even less if you call after 11 p.m. or on weekends. So reach out and touch someone. Someone who’s waiting to share your day.
Reach out. Reach out and touch someone. Bell System/Bell Telephone