The End of the 555 Phone Number

What began as a creation of Ma Bell and then became a Hollywood staple is now quickly disappearing—as it should.
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(Photo: robertlamphoto/Shutterstock)

(Photo: robertlamphoto/Shutterstock)

"Well I got her number. How do you like them apples?" Matt Damon's Will Hunting tells Clark, the pony-tailed Harvard jerk, in one of the movie's best-known scenes.

It's the ultimate eff-you, a perfect combination of chutzpah, attitude, and obnoxiousness.

The only problem? Skylar's number is 555-1294, which, of course, is fake. Not fake in the way that the girl at the bar who gave you her number last weekend's number was fake. Fake, like: does not exist. The 617-555-1294—gonna assume her area code is 617, seeing as Good Will Hunting came out before Boston dissected itself into a dozen or so area codes—isn't a real number. Almost nothing with 555 is.

If you're a filmmaker and you couldn't avoid using a phone number, why wouldn't you use a real phone number and set up something—anything—on the other end? In the age of Easter eggs, it's a simple, easy, and fun solution to a problem.

The practice dates back 40 years, according to Cecil Adams: "The ‘555’ gambit was created in 1973—no matter where you are, dialing the 555 number plugs you into directory assistance, where a legion of professionally trained operators awaits to answer the particular crankiness of your call. 555 isn't an FCC regulation, but simply a convenient creation of Ma Bell." Adams continues on to note that the phone company originally withheld more traditional numbers from the public to offer to movie directors and producers, but they eventually began running out of these. Enter the 555 prefix.

Throughout the years, 555-xxxx numbers have gained a following. Here's a list that Entertainment Weekly called "mind-numbingly comprehensive" and another featuring 11 memorable 555 numbers. There's also this, which is probably the peak and valley of the Internet in one four-minute-and-10-second clip:

The reason for the advent and proliferation of 555 numbers is fairly obvious. Tommy Tutone angered legions of poor souls who happened to have real phone numbers that included the digits xxx-867-5309. Other instances of television shows and movies using real numbers haven't gone well, either. The creative industry needed a way to use somewhat real-seeming numbers without unintended side effects, and the industry settled on the 555 solution. Even Malcolm Gladwell used one in a recent chat with Bill Simmons. He offered up 212-555-1123 as his phone number. I called the number and a recorded voice told me that I wasn't allowed to place such a call from my cell phone. I tried from Skype as well, which told me it was an invalid phone number. Not very sporting, Mr. Gladwell.

But here's a thought: Aren't movies, television shows, and other types of creative endeavors missing a huge marketing opportunity?

Fake 555 numbers have started to go out of fashion, led by smart promotional people who see an opportunity. It makes sense. If you're a filmmaker and you couldn't avoid using a phone number, why wouldn't you use a real phone number and set up something—anything—on the other end? In the age of Easter eggs, it's a simple, easy, and fun solution to a problem. (You could also use a real 555 number. Since 1994, some working ones have existed, although they are expensive to obtain.)

And it might even garner positive press. Look at The Rejection Hotline, created in 2001 by future BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti and his sister Chelsea. If you called 212-479-7990, you would hear a pre-recorded message lightly and sweetly rejecting you. It was brilliant, and instantly viral. The goofy idea generated 400 million calls, according to one estimate. I'm not saying every real/faux phone number campaign would find similar success, but nearly all would extend whatever brand was involved. Those, my friends, are some good apples.

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