Adverts from cell phone companies: Teenagers influenced, but misinformed

Cell phones are tailor-made for teenagers. Filled with the promise of independence and freedom, it allows them to escape the bosom of the family and keep in touch with their friends at all times. So it's not surprising that in recent years, cell phone companies have turned their attention from adults to teenagers. They've marketed products that appeal to them, they've created ads that appeal to them, and they've stepped up their efforts to win their loyalty. Here, we'll focus on cell phone advertising.

To do so, we took a look at marketing strategies designed to reach young people. And we asked experts in communications, marketing and psychology how companies (particularly cell phone companies) go about reaching teens. Then we asked these same experts to analyze several ads from five cell phone companies1 to find out if and how they were likely to appeal to young consumers. According to them, several of them do. But especially the Rogers ads, which specifically target this clientele.

To find out whether ads provide teenagers with enough information to make informed choices, we also analyzed 10 of them from a legal perspective. We found that, while many ads are likely to appeal to young consumers, very few contain all the information they should. This is particularly the case when it comes to price - the fees charged are not included, which leads to confusion - as well as obligations written in small print.

This is a serious problem. The experts' point of view is interesting, but it's not enough to get an idea of young consumers' perceptions. To find out, we decided to meet some teenagers. But first, we wanted to find out if they had a cell phone, which company they dealt with, when they used it, what options they chose and what features their handset had.

To do this, we asked them to complete a survey; 136 young people aged 14 to 18 agreed. Fifty percent had a cell phone, often not their first. And 78% of them were Fido or Rogers customers - companies whose advertising is attractive to young people. To gain the perspective of young consumers, we also organized six focus groups. These took place in Secondary V classes. We wanted to find out whether teenagers were influenced by cell phone companies, and what they thought of the ads they ran.

We found that young people were more likely to recognize the slogans and distinctive signs of Fido, Rogers and Telus than those of other companies. And that these are also the companies they choose most often when asked which one they would do business with if they had to buy a cell phone on the spot. We also learned that they would appreciate more transparency from cell phone companies. To find out how teens were served and, more importantly, how well informed they were when deciding to buy a cell phone, we conducted a field survey. We asked teenagers to visit the points of sale of five cell phone companies and one retailer.

Each time, we were present to note the words and behavior of the sales staff. We were forced to note that they are often stingy with information, which can be detrimental to young consumers. For example, only seven out of 36 salespeople (19.5%) asked our young investigators whether they would be using their cell phones a lot, or how many minutes they needed. And only 13 (36%) asked when they would use their cell phone.

These questions seem to us to be of the utmost importance to anyone wishing to help young consumers choose the package best suited to their needs. Salespeople were also stingy with information. Only six out of 36 salespeople (16.5%) explained the difference between an "à la carte" service and a package. And only 14 out of 36 (39%) explained the features of either formula.

Finally, most failed to mention important information. For example, the fact that when you sign a contract, you're making a long-term commitment was mentioned by only 2 out of 36 salespeople (5.5%) (no one mentioned that terminating the contract cost money). And only 6 out of 36 salespeople (16.5%) told our young investigators how much their cell phone would cost them each month. Can young consumers buy their own cell phones? Are they well protected by existing laws? To find out, we began by reviewing existing legislation in Quebec, Canada and elsewhere in the world.

In particular, this led us to realize that the laws currently in force in Quebec and Canada protect children more specifically than teenagers. And that there are international rules to protect teenagers that we could learn from. Could a young consumer who has purchased a cell phone without fully understanding the consequences of his or her action avoid his or her obligations?

To find out, we also looked at the laws that would allow him to cancel his contract. And we took a look at case law. This led us to believe that in certain cases, young consumers who decide to assert their rights could be successful.