Notes: 1-800..

BUY SOME Alpha-Bits, Aqua-fresh, Band-Aids, Coke, Doritos, Downy, Drano, Dynamo, Efferdent, Fritos, Grape-Nuts, Head & Shoulders, Ivory Snow or Soap, Jif, Klear, Kool-Aid Koolers, Lilt, Log Cabin Syrup, Mr. Clean, Mr. Muscle, Nice ‘n Easy, Off!, Pepsi, Pert, Postum, Prell, Quilted Northern Bathroom Tissue, Ragú, Sanka, Sara Lee, Shake ‘n Bake, Spic and Span, Tab, Tang, Triscuits, Twinkle, Ultra Pampers, Vanish, Windex, Wisk, Oxydol, Yard Guard, Zest, or any of quite a number of other “consumer packaged goods” and — assuming in most instances that you live in the continental United States or in some instances that you live in one of certain sections of the country—you’ll find a toll-free number on the bag, bottle, box, can, canister, carton, dispenser, jar, tube, or wrapper.

You can expect the message advising you what to do with the number to be amiably open-ended, though the number of words expended to convey that impression will vary. On Beecham products, such as Aqua-fresh and Calgon Bath Oil Beads, it says: “Comments or questions? Please call toll-free 1-800 . .”On Fritos, Doritos, and Tostitos it says: “If for any reason you have any questions, comments or are not satisfied, call toll-free 1-800 . . . weekdays 9 to 4:30 Central Time with date/price mark, brand and size.”

What reason would a person have—a rational person, in particular, from whom a company would like to receive communications—to “comment" on a bag of corn chips, with or without date/ price mark, brand, and size? What reason or person or comment or question would any of the companies responsible for any of these products want to go out of its way to know? What can these tollfree numbers tell us about America?

The conclusions below aren’t exactly scientific. They are, rather, a hodgepodge made from as many of the remarks of spokespeople for some of the companies whose products are named above as it took for me to feel that if I hadn’t heard it all, I’d heard much of it more than once.

—Among people from whom compa-

nies receive communications, there are letter writers, and then there are telephone callers. Mail from consumers, companies typically report, drops off only slightly after a toll-free number is instituted. Some letter writers are so determined that they will keep on writing even when the company’s street address no longer appears on the package and they have to phone to get it.

— For most kinds of products, telephone callers outnumber letter writers by two or three to one. Thus toll-free numbers tend greatly to increase the number of communications from consumers to companies.

—Telephone callers are more inquisitive than letter writers. The preponderance of new business coming to most consumer-information departments has been questions: whether Cherry Cola Slice has caffeine in it (yes, but only trace quantities), how to get a particularly tricky child-safe bottle open (first make sure you’re pointing what will be the opening away from you . . . ), whether Procter & Gamble is institutionally committed to Satanism (no, but thank you for taking the trouble to inquire).

—Telephone callers seem to be more complimentary about soft drinks than letter writers, and less so about most other products. This is, though, an especially tentative conclusion.

—Callers have been known to ask consumerinformation representatives out on dates. A letter writer, though, once proposed marriage—from jail.

—People call to comment on ads a given company is running. They call to offer their children or themselves for the company’s advertising. They call with big ideas for new ads, new promotions, new products. They call to comment on the activities of characters in soap operas with which the company is associated.

— Schoolchildren have developed modern-day toll-free equivalents of the old “Prince Albert in a can” and “pop in a bottle” routines. The volume of silly calls is especially high during teachers’ conventions and school holidays.

—Some people believe that Carol Hansen, whose name appears on all Johnson Wax products (consumers are offered the choice of waiting to her or calling the toll-free number), is just a figment of the corporate imagination, like Ann Page, Betty Crocker, and Aunt Jemima. She is not. She is a real person, who has been with the company for twenty-three years. However, she doesn’t take calls, not even to prove she is real.

—Some people believe that if they call the Pepsi-Cola Bottling Group’s tollfree number, they’ll get to talk to the president of the Pepsi-Cola Company, Roger Enrico.

—Some people will be pleased if you offer to mail them a photo of Charmin bathroom tissue’s Mr. Whipple.

—One person who wrote Frito-Lav recently with a question or comment is a woman who lives abroad, who keeps a parrot that refuses any food other than Fritos, and who has had difficulty finding Fritos in local stores. One person who called to comment on Fritos—as a possibly apocryphal story goes — is a self-described moonshiner who finds corn mash made from Fritos to be substandard.

—All told, consumer-packaged-goods companies receive a few million calls to their toll-free numbers every year.

— In the judgment of company spokespeople, rational people from whom companies receive communications outnumber irrational people by at least ninety-nine or ninety-eight to one or two.

—Barbara Wallraff