First, there were vanity license plates. Now, there are vanity toll-free telephone numbers.
They are proliferating as more businesses try the marketing gimmick of advertising with a toll-free telephone number that uses the 800 prefix followed by a word or words instead of numbers.
Holiday Inns Inc. of Memphis, Tenn., uses 800-Holiday. National Car Systems Inc., based in Minneapolis, uses 800-Car-Rent. American Express Co. uses 800-The-Card. Dean Witter Reynolds Inc., the investment firm, uses 800-The-Dean.
Even phone companies use them. In New York, you can call 800-The-Tone, if you want to get Touchtone telephone service.
And smaller companies and other organizations use them, too. If you want to order flowers, dial 800-Flowers.
Some companies combine numbers and letters. International Business Machines Corp. of Armonk, N.Y., has used 800-IBM, followed by four digits. And Nynex Corp., one of seven regional operating companies divested by AT&T;, came up with 800-346-9X9X for its business systems sales unit.
"Vanity numbers have reached prominence within the last five years--within the last three years even greater prominence," said Ernan Roman, who heads a consulting firm, Ernan Roman Direct Marketing Corp. "We'll be seeing more of these numbers."
Pete Webster, staff manager of marketing at AT&T; Communications, the Bedminster, N.J.-based long-distance unit of American Telephone & Telegraph Co., said: "The fact that the number spells the name is an advantage that they gain from it."
Previously, businesses that had more than one place of business, had more than one toll-free number. But in 1982, it became technologically possible for businesses to obtain one umbrella number so that they have a single-number identity nationwide.
"Once they do that, that makes the vanity number even more attractive," Webster said.
AT&T; does not keep statistics on the number of vanity numbers in use, he said. "It's not our policy to market our vanity numbers. We strictly respond to requests for vanity numbers."
But at the end of 1983, the most recent year for which figures are available, 367,538 toll-free numbers were in use, nearly triple the 131,065 in 1978, AT&T; Communications said. The 800 service was introduced in 1967.
Joe Sullivan, vice president of marketing for the car-rental division of National Car Systems, said: "We thought it was a terrific idea because reservations are a very important aspect of our business. We thought the advantage of an easy to remember number would serve us quite well."
The idea came from the company's advertising agency, as frequently is the case.
National Car introduced its vanity number in June, 1982, and "a heck of a lot of people are calling 800-Car-Rent," Sullivan said. "A lot of people use it to shop rates. It's also a convenience. People don't have to look it up."
The vanity number is outpulling the company's regular toll-free number four calls to three, he added.
The company was so pleased with its vanity number, in fact, that it got another one in mid-1984 for its leasing division. The number, 800-Car-Care, is for people who have maintenance questions about their leased automobiles.
K. Shelly Porges, director of consumer marketing at American Express Travel Related Services Co., said: "We had worked with 800 numbers. It was not successful. An 800 number that's composed of digits is not very memorable."
But this past fall, American Express tried out 800-The-Card.
"We tested it in print advertising along the Eastern Seaboard," Porges said. "We have had some positive results. There was an encouraging enough increase for us to keep going ahead.
"Not only do we think the number is easier to remember, but it is also consistent with the life style and the mindset of the consumer. That is the reason that makes it such a powerful tool."
Roman, however, is not completely sold on vanity numbers.
"There is a certain attractiveness and appeal for a marketer to have a number that has its name on it," he said, but "I am not aware of any empirical research that would indicate that the vanity numbers are more effective than a very good, easy-to-recall number."
As these numbers become more popular, will they become harder to remember?
"The companies have to do a sufficiently good job in advertising. They have to sufficiently promote that number so that the consumer associates it with them," Roman said.
Some callers complain that vanity numbers are difficult to dial.
"It probably represents more of a minor irritation than a major obstacle," Porges said. "By the time the person is motivated enough to have remembered the number and have wanted your product enough to remember your number, I don't think it's enough of a difficulty to discourage them. It's still only about seven digits or letters long."
AT&T; says that while it tries to fulfill requests, not all possible combinations of the seven digits are available in the 800 code, and a customer may already have the number wanted.
There is no extra charge for a vanity number.