Buzz in the playground

Mobile phone brands say they don’t target under-16s but phone ownership by children as young as seven is on the rise. Are youths being exploited? asks John Stones

Selling goods to children is a minefield, as marketers know all too well, and the increasing use of mobile phones as a tool for reaching teenagers and younger children is no less controversial. The practice has already incurred the ire of MPs and campaigners.

While the use of mobile phones to target older, richer and less recreational users of mobile phones is advancing, it is younger users who have been the most successful targets of mobile marketing. However, it would be wrong to assume that the youth market dominates. Jeremy Wright, co-founder of mobile marketing agency Enpocket and chairman of the Mobile Marketing Association (MMA), says: “There is a misconception that the youth market is mobile marketing’s bread and butter: it is the 24 to 35 age bracket that is the centre of gravity.”

Yet it is in the youth market, one that marketers have traditionally found so hard to crack, that the medium of the mobile phone can still be most potent. “While other media struggle, mobiles can reach them with significant impact, so the potential is huge,” says Wright.

Research by Mintel shows just how deep the penetration of mobile phone usage in the youth market is. Eight out of ten children between the ages of 11 and 14 now have a mobile, up from six out of ten two years ago. Not only do more children have mobiles, they are getting and using them at younger ages. More than a third of nine- to ten-year-olds now have a mobile, and 14 per cent of seven- to eight-year-olds, a figure predicted to rise.

The attraction for marketers is clear. All Response Media head of digital Stefan Bardega says: “For children, the mobile phone is an extension of themselves. If you pick up a teenager’s phone, you will find clips of their favourite films, pictures of friends, their favourite music, information that will tell you more about them than a half-hour conversation would.”

He adds: “Whereas the mobile phone is just a communication tool for older age groups, for younger users it is part of their identity, and it is this that advertisers should exploit. There are a number of ways that this can be achieved, but in the emotionally tumultuous teenage years when the urge to belong is prominent, giving teenagers something that can be traded as ‘social currency’ such as MMS (multimedia messaging service) is likely to be effective.”

Better reception

Rachel Carey, an associate director of research company NOP World, suggests that marketers could reach the youth market even more effectively by targeting what she calls “young influentials”.

She has overseen a recent study that claims to identify a subset of 12 per cent of children between the ages of nine and 16 who “sway the buying the decisions and behaviour of not only their peer group but also those who fall within their sphere of influence, including parents and siblings”. A key feature of these “young influentials”, says Carey, is that they are “greater communicators, and text messages are one of the key ways in which they communicate”.

There is, however, another side to this coin – that of bullying. Children’s organisations have seen a growing use of mobile phones by children to intimidate their schoolmates. Children’s charity NCH earlier this year found that 16 per cent of children had received a bullying text message. In Singapore, the government this month is using mobiles as part of the solution – sending texts to schoolchildren discouraging bullying.

The potential for mobiles for public service communications is largely untapped in this country, but the use of mobiles is not new for politicians – before the last General Election, the Labour Party sent out text messages encouraging its young supporters to turn out and vote.

Approaching children in as intimate a medium as the mobile phone is bound to upset some parents. Wright says: “The key consideration is, how would you like it if your own children were being sent messages by brands? As long as you are careful and give the opportunity to opt out, there is nothing wrong with it.”

But a survey by brand agency Dragon last year showed overwhelming opposition to the use of mobile phones to market to children, with 98 per cent of parents saying it was inappropriate.

The industry trade body MMA has set guidelines to which the industry should work. As a rule, says Wright, children aged 14 and under are off-limits. For 14- to 16-year-olds, companies can market specific products as long as they are appropriate to the age, budget and usage of their target market. It is also permissible, within guidelines, to sell data on. In recognition of the technological advances being made in mobile technology (for instance, accessing the internet by mobile), the main mobile operators earlier this year agreed a code of conduct to introduce barring and filtering mechanisms to protect children from unsuitable content, such as pornography, which should be in place by the end of the year.

However, for the over-16s, the gloves are off. In a move to regain share of the youth market grabbed by rival operators Virgin and Vodafone, Orange has launched a major campaign promoting its offer of 500 “free” weekend texts to attract text-mad teenagers (carefully specified as being aged between 16 and 18).

No kidding

Despite a website featuring many teenage faces, Vodafone claims it does not target teenagers or children in any way, pointing to the minimum age of 16 for a contract. It also denies that its sponsorship of David Beckham is meant to appeal to young boys. “David has a broad appeal,” says a Vodafone spokesman. He adds that the company deliberately avoids advertising in teen magazines.

However, the teen magazine has been one of the most successful proponents of mobile marketing. EMAP is often cited as the best example, with a mobile database of more than half a million. Its “Pop Txt Club” for teen pop magazine Smash Hits! claims to have a mobile “dialogue” with 40 per cent of its readers. The club’s success has also allowed it to enter into third-party promotions, for example with beauty brands Rimmel and Wella.

However, handset innovation will affect future marketing. The take-up of more expensive camera phones and 3G could leave the teen market behind, believes Marvellous Mobile creative director Jon Carney. But for the time being, teenagers will continue to be targeted with SMS campaigns, while the richer formats allowed by new technologies will be used to reach older and wealthier users.

No matter how carefully brands dip their toe in mobile marketing and agencies respond to the creative challenge of new mobile technology, the combination of youth marketing and a medium as private and personal as the mobile phone is bound to stoke controversy, and, possibly, further calls for regulatory intervention.

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