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Cell Phone Marketers Calling All Preteens

 

By Laura Petrecca
USA Today, 9/06/05

Forget the Barbie Dream House. Today's 9-year-old wants her own cell phone and Mattel will be happy to provide one.

The toymaker is one of many companies vying to connect with the preteen and younger market through mobile phones, services and accessories. The goal is not just to tap new revenue it's also to establish brand loyalty early.

Some parents welcome the appearance of kid-friendly cell phones, while some critics worry that easy-to-influence preteens will be exposed to a barrage of marketing messages.

About 16 million teens and younger kids have cell phones, with the bulk of them older teens, according to the researcher GFK's NOP World Technology. But as the teen market gets saturated, cell providers and other companies are eyeing the younger set.

In February 2002, 13% of 12-to-14-year-olds had cell phones. That number jumped to 40% in December 2004, according to NOP. Some 14% of 10-to-11-year-olds now own cell phones. While NOP doesn't have comparison data for that group yet, Vice President Ben Rogers says its ownership is rising.

Even kids under 10 are using personal cells to call for rides home. "We're seeing cell phone growth from ages 8 and 9 on," says technology analyst Rob Enderle.

Mattel licensed its "My Scene" brand name, which focuses on preteens, to Single Touch Interactive. This month, they'll sell a full-service $79.99 cell phone with prepaid minutes priced at 25 cents each. Next year, Walt Disney launches Disney Mobile service through Sprint. It is designed for families with kids as young as 10.

Some companies are aiming even younger.

Just in time for the new school year, educational tech company LeapFrog and wireless firm Enfora are launching the $99.99 TicTalk phone for children ages 6 and older.

Firefly Mobile has a simple $99.99 phone with five "speed-dial" buttons for "mobile kids."

Many parents are buying in.

Gaithersburg, Md., mom Phyllis Corrao just got her 10-year-old son, Daniel Mangle, a full-service Nextel phone so she can stay in touch when he's at school.

Eric Webber of Austin says he's about to cave in and buy his 11-year-old son, Jake, one. "I have the cell phone debate every day," says Webber, adding that his son has worn him down.

When parents put phones in kids' hands, they're likely creating a lifelong cell phone customer, say experts. That gives both the service providers such as Sprint or Verizon as well as brands with names on the handsets such as Mattel's "My Scene" access to new customers and sets the stage for future sales.

"Once you give it to them, you can't take it away," Rogers says. He adds that as kids get older and are exposed to more advanced phones, "Parents are going to experience a lot of pressure to upgrade."

He says the simpler phones, such as the Firefly, are seeding the way for future growth. "There is a role for those limited phones to get people in young and then drive intake of fully functional phones at a younger age," Rogers says.

In addition to paying for upgraded phones, parents and kids are also buying ring tones, cell phone shells and hip carrying cases.

Firefly's Web site, for instance, promotes a $12.99 wristlet purse to carry the phone, as well as colorful "bubble gum" and "limeade" exchangeable outer shells for the phone at $12.99 each.

That might be just the start. While Disney hasn't disclosed all its plans, some telecom analysts already are speculating about the potential it has to market an array of products through Disney Mobile.

Enderle says Disney could sell ring tones that promote its movie characters or include discount coupons to its theme parks with the monthly cell phone bill.

That vast marketing potential has some children's advocates worried about exploitation.

"It's open season on kids," says Gary Ruskin, executive director of advocacy group Commercial Alert. Ruskin rattles off a range of concerns, from children being exposed to marketing messages on the phone itself (such as Mattel's "My Scene" design) to the potential for kids to be pressured to buy ring tones and accessories.

Ruskin says some companies will harness the nag factor when a kid harasses a parent for so long, the parent gives in to sell their goods.

Marketers defend their phone products. Mattel says: "We believe it is ultimately the choice of the parent to decide when his or her child is ready for a cell phone. Research shows that kids are going wireless, and we wanted to provide girls with a communication device that is not only functional and fashionable but that also encourages responsible cell phone use."

It appears that more parents are on Mattel's side. Webber, who works in the ad industry, says he sees how marketers can take advantage of kids. His son is already turning ad messages he's heard into arguments for a phone. "He's playing the safety and security card on me, saying, 'Wouldn't you feel safer if I had it?' " Webber says.

At this point, Webber is just about sold. Both he and Corrao agree that cell phones can teach their kids about responsibility. Corrao's son, Daniel, does chores to earn the talk time, and Webber says he'll do the same with Jake.

Corrao says giving Daniel a phone has paid off in other ways: "He's called to say he loves me."

 

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