May the phone be with you

The moment I noticed today’s date, I immediately said to myself, “Hmm, it’s the twenty-third anniversary of the premiere of The Empire Strikes Back.” Now, how did I know that? Sure, I’m a world-class geek, but I don’t normally have information that obscure at my fingertips. In fact, I can’t tell you the exact premiere date of any other Star Wars movie, even the one that came out last year. So what’s the explanation?
It’s the result of a clever marketing ploy by Lucasfilm. Movie studios are keenly aware that to maximize interest in a soon-to-be-released movie, their promotional campaign should gradually reveal tidbits of information about it as the premiere date approaches. Nowadays, the most effective way to do that is with an official Web site, but that wasn’t an option back in 1980. So the studio made use of another network: the telephone system. Lucasfilm set up a toll-free phone number that fans could call to hear plot teasers about The Empire Strikes Back, delivered in character by the voices of the cast. The messages were rotated on (as I recall) a weekly basis, encouraging the fans to call the number repeatedly to make sure they heard each one. And in a stroke of marketing genius, the phone number was the release date of the movie: (800) 521-1980. This ensured that, having memorized the number, Star Wars fans were also committing the date to memory.
I still have that number memorized, even though the line was disconnected over two decades ago. I can’t dial my wife’s office number without looking it up first, but I’ll remember Darth Vader’s phone number until the day I die. Such is the power of fannish obsession.

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