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Operators Are Standing By

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"...and if lines are busy, call again."

Yet another phrase heard in direct sale advertisements. If they're flashing a phone number on the screen, then you can bet you will be told that the operators are standing by, waiting for you to give their drab, dull lives meaning.

It implies (without ever actually saying it) that the offer is only for a limited time, and that those operators may stop standing by at any moment, so you'd better get your order in right now. In fact, some of these advertisements actually include a ticking clock, suggesting that once the ad or paid program is over, nobody will be there to take your call. There will be, of course; since commercials can be seen these days at any time of the day or night, order desks are generally staffed continuously.


Actual research determined that the phrase had the opposite effect. If operators are "standing by", that must be because they don't spend very much time actually answering the phones and taking orders, because not many people are ordering the product. The phrase "If lines are busy, please keep trying" was found to work much better. If lines are busy, then the company must be swamped with orders because the product is so great. (This allows the vendor to theoretically hire fewer agents, which not only reduces the seller's overhead costs, but also their apparent "supply", which — when coupled with the lack of contradictions at the customer's end of the phone line — make the product seem more valuable.)

Technically these commercials are usually incorrectly phrased. In telephone terms, an "operator" is a person who takes a call to redirect it to someone else. A person who actually takes a call to process it themselves is an "agent," and thus, they should be saying that "agents are standing by" rather than operators. However, the term "agent" is relatively modern, at least in this definition, and the average infomercial customer is over forty and is more likely to associate the word "agent" with "KGB" or "Maxwell Smart" than with "order clerk".



  • Time-Life Music and any other sales pitch for music compilations, subscription or stand-alone.
  • Progressive Auto Insurance subverts this: Kenny Mayne declares, "Operators are not standing by." When an operator contradicts him, he replies that, first, they aren't operators but "trained professionals", and second, they're all in chairs: "Trained professionals are seated comfortably."
  • Parodied as far back as the 1940's by radio satirists Bob & Ray, who turned a sponsor's real commercials into a series of spectacularly unsuccessful efforts to 'make a simple phone call' to contact the 'trained operators' who were, according to the copy, standing by to sign customers up for a free trial TV set. "No, no, they mean we'll be out at what time's convenient to us, pal. Yeah, they don't say that, do they?"
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  • Also parodied in The Simpsons episode "Radio Bart." Homer sees an advertisement for the Superstar Celebrity Microphone. note  Homer, convinced that his time for buying the product is running out, hastily calls and asks if there are any left. The operator there replies "Yeah, a couple." The camera then pans out to reveal that the warehouse is, in fact, full of unsold microphones.
  • A Peanuts comic strip had gullible Sally watching one of these ads. She runs to get big brother Charlie Brown, only to find that the commercial is over, and she didn't catch the phone number to call. The final panel has Sally lying in bed, a haunted look on her face, muttering, "How can I sleep, knowing those operators are standing by?"
  • Parodied in an early episode of Saturday Night Live, with a TV ad offering courses on becoming said operators. It, of course, ended with "operators are standing by".
  • This is the title of a They Might Be Giants song, which imagines what the operators are doing while they wait for you to call.
    Operators are standing by
    Smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee
    Bounce their shoes at the end of their feet
    And wish they could go home
  • Garfield: On November 15, 2004, Garfield is watching TV and sees the phrase "Operators are standing by to take your order!" He goes to the phone to tell the operators that he won't be buying anything... but as a cat, they can't actually understand him.