"Touch-tone menu systems are expressly designed to obstruct genuine assistance; it's really sort of the point. It isn't hard to believe that there is a scheming, disembodied intellect responsible for your pain. In fact, it's superior to the alternative, which is that another human being designed it, made it like a cage to catch you."
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(Eight minutes, thirty point two seconds of on-hold music, interspersed with "Your call is important to us, please continue to hold...")
Thank you for waiting. Please name your trope.
>For Inconvenience, Press "1"<
Thank you. Please begin trope description at the sound of the tone.
If you would like to speak to an actual person that is just as annoying as this recording, press The Operators Must Be Crazy.
A character tries calling a number for some important information. Unfortunately, said number has an Interactive Voice Responder (IVR). Hilarity Ensues.
While sometimes this is a string of awkward waits, pauses and irrelevances, sometimes this is inverted by one of the options (usually the third) being ''exactly'' what the caller want to find out about, with a ridiculous degree of accuracy. On the other hand, sometimes it's taken to the extreme with a string of "You have chosen [X]. If this is correct, press [Y]," options (with each subsequent one asking you to confirm that your last confirmation was correct).
If a long wait on hold is involved, may overlap with Crowning Music of Awesome.
And for all of us who would like to avert this trope in our real lives, websites like Get Human are there to help.
open/close all folders
Press 1 for Advertising
One commercial in Ally Bank's series of "Even kids know it's wrong to..." commercials parodies this.
"For broccoli, say 1. For toys, say 2."
Discover cards has an ad campaign depicting a Ruritanian man who calls himself "Peggy" as a customer service employee in some backwoods call center, who gives callers absolutely no help whatsoever.
Allstate's "Mayhem" campaign has gotten in on the act.
A commercial for Chase banks had a man pressing a button on his phone thinking it was a recording. He is relieved to know that there is an actual teller on the other line.
A radio ad promoting Washington Mutual's "no fee" banking services depicted the telephone tree of a fictional competitor called "Disregard National Bank." The customer who dialed Disregard's phone tree listened to a lengthy list of options, all of which involved paying fees in some way. "To set up a fee payment schedule, press 2," "To pay a late fee on fees past due, press 3," and so on. The customer was eventually given the option to speak to a live person by pressing 5, only to have the IVR add as a postscript, "Please note that a fee will be charged for pressing 5."
Press 2 for Comic Books
When Too Much Coffee Man travels to the future, he discovers that trials are now conducted through Interactive Voice Responders
"For a plea of innocence, press one. For a plea of guilty, press two." >1< "Innocent plea entered. Processing... Due to a preponderance of evidence, you are found guilty of everything. You're sentenced to life in prison. For appeal, press one." >1< "Appealing... Appeal denied."
Blue Beetle once needed to reach Max Lord in an emergency but had to suffer through the Superbuddies answering machine service.
"Thank you for calling the Superbuddies hotline! To report a crisis situation, press one now! To report a super-villain sighting, press two now! For a listing of local retail outlets carrying licensed Superbuddies merchandise — or to order by phone — press three n—" (hangs up)
One Dilbert strip shows Dilbert stuck on one of these lines. By the final panel he's gotten a hammer and is about to smash the receiver.
A Sally Forth (Howard) strip features her husband recording an answering machine message with a set of "Press X" options, finishing with the statement, approximately: "Press any button you like. The whole point of Voicemail is that we don't want to talk to you." He'd started off by asking Sally if his voice sounded unfriendly enough.
This happened once in the Finnish newspaper comic Viivi & Wagner. In one strip, Wagner calls the insurance company, only to hear this:
"You have reached voicemail. If you want music, press one. If you're pissed, press two. If you want service, forget it."
Curtis has the titular character's father attempt to contact some organization via phone. After getting increasingly frustrated, he screams into the phone "If you'd like to come over with a can of gasoline and burn us to the ground, please press...!" only to have the automated response parrot it back to him.
Sherman in Sherman's Lagoon has gotten stuck on phone technical support services before. In one sunday he works as the technical support for a company, but has no idea what they do or what they make. Callers have to navigate hundreds of automated menus, and most get caught in an infinite loop. The few that do make it to Sherman all say the same thing;
"FINALLY! I'M TALKING TO A HUMAN!"
Press 4 for Fan Works
The Good OmensFan FicGreat are the Myths puts a case of this in Heaven's waiting room when the demon Crowley pays a visit:
"... Konnichiwa. Bonjour." In the corridors of Heaven, Crowley stared. "Bloody hell," he muttered, "I thought we came up with this." "Welcome to Heaven," said the voice. "If you are a terrestrial agent, please press one. If you are recently deceased, please press two. If you are an invading demon army, please press three. If you have had your fingers cut off, please bash your head or other appendage against the keypad, and someone will be along to help you momentarily."
Fire: <<You have reached Heaven's Help Line. If you know which of the eight million you wish to speak to, please chant their extension, followed by the word, 'amen', now. If you have a dying prayer, please chant, 'one', now. If you are a god, please chant, 'two', now. If you are following up on a previous prayer, please chant, 'three', now. Para servicios en español—>>
Press 5 for Films
Played around with in Demolition Man, where the following line is said by an actual person:
Policeman: Greetings and salutations. Welcome to the San Angeles Emergency Line. If you would like an automated response, please press "1" now.
Subverted in Small Soldiers: Alan tries to tell the phone operator about the rampaging toys but she can only spout out rehearsed responses (she also calls him a "ma'am"). Eventually an exasperated Alan says, "Is there a machine I can talk to? Just patch me over to a machine, please."
In The Grinch, when the Grinch returns to his cave, he checks his answering machine, which has this outgoing message, "If you utter so much as one syllable I'll hunt you down and GUT YOU LIKE A FISH! If you'd like to fax me press the star key." Needless to say, he doesn't get many voice mails.
Brave plays the gag with a witch's cauldron, using vials of potions instead of numbers. (Including, this being Scotland, "To hear these instructions in Gaelic...")
"If you're that red-haired lass, pour in the third vial."
If you have Bi-Polar Disorder, please leave a message after the beep. Or before the beep. Or after the beep. Please wait for the beep.
If you have short-term memory loss, please try your call again later.
Alternatively: "If you have short-term memory loss, press 9. If you have short-term memory loss, press 9. If you have short-term memory loss, press 9. If you have short-term memory loss, press 9. If you have short-term memory loss, press 9."
If you have low self-esteem, please hang up. All our representatives are busy.
If you are agoraphobic, please stay on the line to make an in-person appointment at our national office in New York City.
The Bastard Operator from Hell seems to have some experience making these. He and the PFY have discussed making recursive ones in at least one story.
The Cathedral of Life has a very unhelpful phone system in The Visitation.
Press 7 for Live-Action TV
Fonejacker: "Hello and welcome to the Flat Line. Is it a... HOUSE or a... FLAT you are interested in?"
One episode of Married... with Children subjected Al Bundy to this trope when he called an auto parts dealer to find an alternator for the Dodge. As just one example of what he had to sit through, after six hours on the phone:
"If your car is a Pacer, press 61. If your car is a Studebaker, press 62. If your car is a Hudson Hornet, press 63..."
About halfway through the call, the automated voice chirpily greets Al by name, as it's apparently asked so many questions about his car that it's now narrowed the potential callers down to just him. And then to make matters worse, when Al finally got through to a live operator, he had to go get his credit card... and Kelly comes in and hangs up the phone while he's away, forcing him to start all over again. Is it any wonder Al dies of bleeding stomach ulcers by the time he's sixty? Since the rest of the episode was a Field of Dreams parody, the episode ends with the line, "If you build it they will come. If you want them to build it for you Press 1 now."
One Frasier episode has a frustrated Martin attempt to navigate one of these, made even worse by the fact that the options were voice-activated ("PER-SON-AL."). Frasier attempts to enter a code that he heard will get you straight to an operator. It doesn't succeed, but he does manage to qualify for a small-business loan. If he's remembering his high-school Spanish correctly.
In Angel, the Wolfram and Hart intercom seems to frequently misdirect people. Given that the options on their tree range from "I need legal representation" to "I'd like to sacrifice my first-born son to a demon," this has caused some uncomfortable moments.
"You have reached ritual sacrifice. For goats, press one, or say 'goats.'" "To sacrifice a loved one or pet, press the pound button."
One episode of The Nanny has Fran calling the NYPD to try to report a lost child. The first menu she gets says, "To report a murder, press 1. For mugging, press 2. For bomb threats below 34th Street, press 3. 34th Street to 72nd, press 4."
On an episode of Seinfeld, George calls a number thinking it's the Mr. Moviefone directory, but really it's just Kramer imitating the voice. After George pushes some buttons to select a movie, Kramer realizes that he has no idea what it is and just replies (in Moviefone voice), "Why don't you just tell me the name of the movie you want to see!" At the end of the episode, the Moviefone guy arrives to take revenge for the stolen business.
The story "The Invasion" has the Second Doctor have to do with an automated receptionist and not enjoy it. Which Zoe later drops a Logic Bomb on.
Happens again in "Planet of the Dead." The Doctor calls UNIT for assistance and get stuck in this ("If you want to report a UFO sighting, press one."). One of the people trapped in the bus tells the Doctor that he can get to a live person by holding 0 when he calls.
Robin Williams, in his HBO special Weapons of Self Destruction, has a whole bit devoted to this, additionally mocking imperfect speech-recognition systems:
"List city and state please." Washington, DC. "What would you like?" Constitution Hall. "Did you say, 'Kennedy Center'?" Nooo.... Constitution Hall. "Did you say, 'Congressional Balls'?" No...! ...And it's such, you become like the Miracle Worker: (heavily enunciated) Constitutiooon Haaaaaaalllll... "Did you say, 'Cocksucker'?" NO I DIDN'T SAY COCKSUCKER! "Would you like to talk to a person?" Fuck yes! "If you'd like to talk to a person, press 1." >1< "If you'd like to talk to someone in English, press 2." >2< (Mexican accent) "Are you sure you don't want to talk to someone in Spanish? Press 3." >3< "Press 4 if you'd like to move to the next menu." >4< "Press 5 if you're getting somewhat irritated." >5< "Press 6 if you're my bitch." >6< "Press 7. You know you want to." >7< "Press 8, daddy, do it!" >8< "Press 9!" >9< "What are the chances of talking to a real person? ZERO! Press it!" >BEEEP BEEEEEP BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP< (Indian accent) "Hullo! Did you want to talk to a real person?"
Parodied when they watch "Space Travelers". After one of the astronauts dies, his wife is led to a phone and Joel quips "If you have a husband in space, press one. If you have a dead husband in space, press two."
The King Of Queens: One episode featured Kevin James' character winding up on one of these. Then he wound up in "voice-prompt hell."
QI once had a gag of this nature. Alan's buzzer in Infantile went:
Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear once did a news segment on the phone parking services (replacing the cities parking meters). He tried to order a parking space using this service on the show, requiring him to put all sorts of numbers (car registration number, credit car number, number for the parking place, etc.) only for it to tell him to try again.
Press 8 for Music
"Dr. Online" by Zeromancer has one for suicide center, ending "If you do not wish to die, please hang up now."
The song "LAMC" by Tool, the entire song being a recording of one man's desperate struggle against the automated telephone response system of the Los Angeles Municipal Court. The song only increases in bizarreness as the song goes on; the selections get increasingly outlandish and the man's obvious frustration mounts (we never hear him talk, but the sounds of the button presses tell us all we need to know).
From the Capitol Steps' album Four More Years in the Bush Leagues:
"Hello. You have reached the cell phone of Saddam Hussein. I'm not here right now, but your call is very important to me. If you wish to declare a fatwa, press 1 now. If you are a former body-double looking for work, press 7-11. If you are an imperialist infidel, press 666! All other calls, please stay on the line."
"A Skit About Robots" from MC Frontalot's Secrets from the Future album ends with Frontalot threatening to stab the phone computer in the EPROM, prompting it to apologize for its misbehavior.
The track introductions from the PDQ Bach album Two Pianos Are Better than One:
If you wish to hear this work as the composer wrote it, press 1. If you wish to hear it sung by Spanish monks who live in an isolated monastery called Our Lady of How to Package and Market Recordings, press 2. If you wish to hear it performed by members of the Bolshoi Capitalist Ensemble, press 3. If you wish to hear it played by caffeine addicts who bring it a good two minutes under the next longest performance, press 4.
The "T-Bagging'" skit on Ludacris' album Chicken-n-Beer is all about this:
If you woke up with a hangover and a pair of hairy balls on your forehead, press 7. BEEP You've just pressed 7. You've been victimized and introduced to a moral crime called teabagging. We suggest you probably hang up the phone, beat the ass of any white guys you hung out with last night, and find and destroy all photos before they appear on the Internet.
Ray Stevens Come to the USA. Has this at the beginning. "For Spanish press 1, Portuguese 2, Arabic 3, Farsi 4, French 5 Swahili 6, German 7, Italian 8, and if you insist on English please stanby."
Press 9 for Print Media
GAMES Magazine once had an indirect dialing maze puzzle where you had to follow the instructions exactly or get disconnected. The goal, 0, brings the news that the operator has just left.
If you ring up HMRC, or indeed anything, you get a range of options. "If you would like to spend more money, listen to the numbers we're about to say out loud. If this call is of a random nature and connected to nothing, press 1. If you don't know the answer to what we're asking you press 2. If you're worried that life is pointless and at some time you'll probably want to kill yourself, press 3. If you like listening to Vivaldi's Four Seasons for five hours, press 5. If you can't count properly, press 8.
User Desmond-O-NTY is not available. This call has been forwarded to an automated voice system. (...) To confess to treason, please press 1. To accuse the citizen you are calling of treason, please press 2. (...) To answer the survey on the new Bouncy Bubble Beverage, please press 4. For global thermonuclear war, please press 5. If you know the number of the extension you are trying to reach, press octothorpe and star simultaneously, then 3 several times quickly and follow the voice instructions. For more options. For more options, please press eleventeen. Eleventeen. For more oprionts. Options. General protection fault. This device will self destruct in ten seconds...
Press "Start" for Video Games
A puzzle in Zork: Grand Inquisitor involves figuring out the automated service on the "Hades Shuttle Courtesy Phone" to summon Charon's boat, which features instructions like "To press 3, please press 7." One can figure out how to navigate it normally (which takes a while), or use the Simplify Instructions spell "Kendall".
"Press the * Key for 'What is all this? I just want to call the damn shuttle. Is that so much to ask?'"
There's even a key you can press to make the entire instruction list be recited backwards.And it works.Subtitles and all. (Talk about a Crowning Moment of What the Hell... literally.)
A puzzle in Syberia involves using a canal mechanism to allow a boat to tow the spring-loaded train to the winding mechanism. Unfortunately, it requires a numeric password and the only apparent help is a phone that leads to one of these... that serves as no help whatsoever. Apparently the only way to find the code is to effectively try all combinations until the right one appears (the code is only 2 digits so it doesn't take TOO long. Not to mention it turns out to be 42).
In Episode One, attempting to call Bubs using Homestar's phone results in a phone tree. Strong Bad quickly hangs up because "You can't prank a phone tree. Besides, the last time I navigated Bubs' Tele Stand, I wound up with a crate full of rhino horns... and not even the endangered kind!"
The fifth episode features a couple of very-low-tech computer programmers pretending to be an automated phone service. Their options for "one," "two," and "three" aren't helpful, so you have to say "four" in order to get anywhere, even though they didn't even have an option four.
"SAY ONE, TWO OR THREE!"
In Ratchet & Clank Future, Ratchet attempts to gain entrance to Captain Qwark's HQ while being pursued by robots intent on destroying him, ultimately failing due to the intercom in the main entrance having one of these.
Inverted in an installment of Casey And Andy, where the automated menu gives them the exact information they need. "If you're calling about the mortalization of Satan, press 3." Then again, what else would you expect from Quantum Cop's phone?
In Brazilian website wwwdotchargesdotcomdotbr, there was a story where President Dilma Rouseff of Brazil phoned CBF (Confederação Brasileira de Futebol - Brazilian Federation of Soccer) and she got a message that, translated, means: "To criticize the Brazilian team, press one. To speak to the President (of CBF), press two. To report irregularities, turn off the phone".
SCP Foundation has SCP-361, a device used for divining using animal organs. If a fresh sheep's liver is placed on the device, it gives increasingly complex instructions, shutting down for twenty-four hours if one is not completed. It also speaks in a language and tone tailored to the user, so to a speaker of modern English it sounds like a phone tree. ("Welcome to HarusCo! Your sacrifice is very important to us! For Tinia the Thunderer, please perform a horizontal incision on the offering. For Aita of the Underworld, please perform a vertical incision. For Maris, lightly cover your offering with the ash of a dead warrior related to you by blood.")
In the episode "Bart of Darkness," a Rear Window parody, Bart thinks Ned Flanders killed his wife and sees Ned arrive while Lisa is investigating. Bart tries calling the police...
Voice: Hello, and welcome to the Springfield Police Department Resc-u-Fone?. If you know the name of the felony being committed, press 1. To choose from a list of felonies, press 2. If you are being murdered or calling from a rotary phone, please stay on the line. (Bart growls and punches some numbers at random) Voice: You have selected regicide. If you know the name of the king or queen being murdered, press 1. —>(Bart slams the phone)
In "King-Size Homer," when Homer attempts to call the nuclear plant to warn them of an impending disaster (listen here):
Voice: The fingers you have used to dial are too fat. To obtain a special dialing wand, please mash the keypad with your palm now."
And in "Home Sweet Home-Diddly-Dum-Doodly," Homer and Marge try to call their kids while in foster care, only to get an automated message stating that the Flanders' phone number can't be reached and ends with, "You negligent monster!"
Another gag is that whenever a family member is put on hold, the music that plays relates to whatever problem they have, causing them to break down in tears.
Taz Mania: Taz tries calling a hotline for help how to catch the Kiwi bird and ends up navigating an endless process in which every dead end leads to him getting a mallet to the head.
South Park: Kenny dying (as usual) and being embalmed with Worcester sauce in a freak accident creates a Zombie Apocalypse. When the boys call the helpline on the sauce bottle, the third option is "If your town is being overrun by zombies..."
Happened on Sponge Bob Square Pants, where Spongebob and Squidward thought the town was being overrun by robots. Spongebob tries to call the Navy for help, triggering the following dialogue:
Voice Message: Hello! You have reached the Navy's automated voice messaging system. SpongeBob: Squidward, the robots have taken over the navy! Squidward:Not the NAVY!!!
One episode has Mickey, Donald Duck, and Goofy attempting to deal with an automated greeting service in front of the phone company. Mickey follows the instructions given to him to the letter but gets nowhere. Donald tries to mess with the system and it decides that Donald wants to pay his bill, followed by a mechanized arm trying to take Donald's beak. When they take it off the wall and try to destroy it, it says "If you really want to smash me, stomp harder!"
In the short "computer.don," Donald tries to buy and install a computer after Daisy accuses him of being old-fashioned and calls him a dweeb. He calls the computer company and receives this message:
Automated answering service: To order a computer, press 1. If you can't press 1 because you're still using one of those old rotary phones... you're a dweeb.
In the Rugrats episode "Naked Tommy," Didi tried to call Lipschitz's hotline for advice on how to deal with Tommy running around nude only to have her wait until "press 9" which only gave her a recorded message what has already been written on his books and charged Didi for every minute she waited on his hotline.
In an episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Carl loses both of his arms, and attempts to call the hospital using only his tongue. The automated message refers him to a ridiculously long number.
Voice: You have reached the Animal Control Hotline. If you know the name of the animal trying to eat you, please say it now. Man: Elephant! El-e-phant! Elephant!! Voice: You said Everglades pygmy sunfish. First, step out of the bayou and onto dry land.
And later, when the penguins arrive...
Man: Now it's penguins? Voice: You said Peruvian milk snake.
On American Dad, Roger and Steve call a company to complain about a shoddy novelty product they bought. They are left on hold for what is implied to be days when they finally reach voice mail. But when Steve asks for billing, the machine reroutes them to Barbara Billingsley (of June Cleaver and Jive-talking Lady fame).
Verizon customer support. Even if you get to talk to an actual person, they'll just redirect your call back to the menu, which competes with House of Leaves in labyrinthine magnitude.
A lot of Verizon support vendor operators actually don't have access to billing information for security reasons. If you ask them to, they'll usually stay conferenced on the line with you to walk you through whatever automated system you need to navigate to complete your transaction.
A medical center on Staten Island has a particularly bad example. They ask you to press one to speak English, so you do — and then they switch you to the Spanish menu!
metroPCS has one better. The computer voice sarcastically confirms every selection you make. Never you mind the fact that it always makes you pay your balance, even if it is not due.
UPS is almost like a Sierra game. If you call their customer service and state that you do, in fact, have a tracking number, it's into the labyrinth with you!
A former menu item in the National Discount Brokers phone service:
Thankfully, an aversion exists in these kinds of services which recognize voice commands in addition to/in lieu of pressing whatever number key on the phone. In this case, the quickest way to speak to a live operator is to just say "Operator!" at every recording until an operator picks up.
Those don't always work, such as when a certain college's automated system gets "Library" mixed up with the office of Jerry Something (forgot his last name, but the whole thing was frustrating as hell).
You can usually also skip the menus that don't recognize voice by just hammering '0' over and over until the system gives up.
Unfortunately, many operators now have a script and flowchart that they have to stick to, making them just as frustrating to deal with as an IVR.
Xcel Energy only has phone tree options that lead to inputting your account number, even though you need to go through this tree to set up an account. Eventually, you must yell at it until it produces an operator. This operator will entirely fill out your new account, then is required to transfer you back to a different phone tree to set up the last couple things. This phone tree wants you to tell it your last name. Yes. I don't know anyone whose name it could recognize.
Subverted by reality in that most (if not all) menu systems have a "shortcut" to an operator — typically, pressing 0 (sometimes * or #) several times will achieve this. Also — holding after the menu is usually a good thing to try. Many companies also leave the delay to accommodate those few people who don't use touch-tone phones.
In at least one IVR system, an inarticulate noise of exasperation is one such shortcut. The recording instantly cuts off mid-sentence to connect you to an operator.
British bank First Direct (part of HSBC) market themselves as an aversion of this — people calling through to their main telephone banking line are put through to the first available operator immediately, with no IVR in between (HSBC themselves use an IVR, however.)
Bank of America's phone network gives a nod to Red vs. Blue and asks those who would like to discuss their mortgages to press eleven.
Odeon, a cinema chain in the UK, used to have an atrocious one of these for bookings in the 90s and early 00s. It was all voice activated, and not very good. It was particularly bad at picking up place names, so often somewhere like "Hemel Hempstead" would come out as "Huntingdon" or "Hatfield" (both places, just nowhere near each other) or the dreaded "I'm Sorry, I did not understand your request." Fortunately online bookings pretty much killed the service.
The UK's somewhat ironically-named Department of Work and Pensions has a particularly annoying subversion set up if you want to claim unemployment insurance; once you've got through the surprisingly brief automated bit and spent upwards of a quarter of an hour listening to the same ninety-second segment from one of Vivaldi's Four Seasons rendered with an early 90s MIDI synthesiser and played in an endless loop, you then have to answer a long series of questions and be interrogated about your eligibility to receive Jobseeker's Allowance. The depressing part of this is that these questions are all read out by a human operator, who is forbidden from doing anything to speed the process up by skipping over some of the more unlikely items (income from property you're renting out, for example) you have to confirm that you do not in fact have, or otherwise make the process more pleasant than talking to a computer. One suspects that the DWP uses live operators because they are paid less than it would cost to operate a machine to replace them.
The Westboro Baptist Church has an automated answering system that goes "If you’re the media or calling for an interview press 1. If you’re wanting more info about our church, press 2. If you’re gay press 3, if you’re Muslim/Jewish/any other religion press 4, if you’re in the military press 5," and so on and so forth. No matter which one you choose, they deem to you a "fag-enabler" and hang up.
All three big Canadian ISPs and phone service providers (Bell, Rogers and Cogeco) are notorious about this. There are people in Cogeco's phone system whose entire job appears to be to transfer you to someone else, and you can't get anywhere in the Bell system if you're address isn't in their system, and sometimes up to half a town isn't in their system. This is a big contributor to all three companies reputations failing.
Chile's VTR. "Press three if you have questions about the internet service". Automated recording following: "You can also go to our online service at...". And the actual operators do not understand why it doesn't make sense.
When a woman rang Telecom New Zealand in 2008 and the IVR asked why she was calling, she replied "Greedy Telecom". The system recognised it put her through to the debt collection department!
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