Free phone calls if you can bear the ads

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THE days of the telephone bill could soon be numbered, with the launch of a service offering customers unlimited access to free phone calls. The only catch is that every few minutes callers have to break off to listen to an advertisement, an innovation which its backers believe could be the ultimate direct marketing weapon.

Energis, the fast-growing phone network, completed a trial of the service before Christmas and is considering going live in a few months time. "This is direct advertising with a vengeance. The customer gets instant gratification," said Alistair Henderson from the company.

The idea, which originated in Sweden a year ago, is deceptively simple. Customers call a freephone number, then key in the phone number they want to dial. The call begins with an advert for anything from local businesses to high street store chains. The longer subscribers stay on the line, the more adverts they are subjected to, preceded by a warning tone. Energis declined to reveal the companies taking part in the trial, but one possibility was a recorded message from a pizza parlour which would ask customers to press the keypad if they were feeling hungry. When they hang up, the pizza chain would automatically call them back to take the order.

Though customers have no idea which advert will come up, they are questioned before they join the scheme to find out their age and and interests. You might get an advert for wine if you are a wine lover, and then an airline saying they've got cheap seats available.

Energis says the scheme is an alternative to direct mail sent through the post and frequently thrown straight into the bin.