Adverts from cell phone companies: Teenagers influenced, but misinformed

The cell phone is a custom-made object for teenagers. Filled with the promise of independence and freedom, it allows them to escape from the family fold and be in contact with their friends at all times. It's no surprise that, in recent years, cell phone companies, which initially targeted adults, have taken an interest in this clientele. They have put products on the market that are likely to appeal to them, they have made advertisements designed to seduce them, and they have multiplied their efforts to retain them. We are particularly interested in the advertisements of the cell phone companies here.

To do this, we took a look at marketing strategies aimed at reaching young people. And we asked experts in communications, marketing and psychology how companies (especially cell phone companies) are reaching teens. We then asked the same experts to analyze several ads run by five cell phone companies1 to find out if and how they were likely to resonate with younger consumers. According to them, this is the case for several of them. But above all, Rogers ads, which are specifically aimed at this clientele.

To find out whether ads provide teens with enough information to make informed choices, we also analyzed 10 ads from a legal perspective. As a result, we found that while many ads are likely to appeal to younger consumers, few contain all the information they should. This is particularly the case with regard to the price – the fees charged are not included, which is confusing – as well as the obligations written in the fine print.

This is a serious problem. Having the expert perspective is interesting, but it's not enough to get an idea of how young consumers perceive it. In order to get to know the latter, we decided to meet teenagers. But first, we wanted to know if they had a cell phone, what company they were dealing with, when they used it, what options they had chosen, and what the features of their device were.

To do this, we asked them to complete a survey; 136 young people between the ages of 14 and 18 accepted. Fifty percent of them had a cell phone, and often it wasn't their first. And 78% of them were Fido or Rogers customers; companies whose advertisements appeal to young people. In order to get the perspective of young consumers, we also held six focus groups. These took place in Secondary V classes. We wanted to find out if teens were influenced by cell phone companies and what they thought about the ads they showed.

We found that young people have an easier time recognizing the slogans and distinctive signs of Fido, Rogers and Telus than those of other companies. And that these are also the companies they most often choose when asked which company they would do business with if they had to get a cell phone right away. We also learned that they would appreciate more transparency from cell phone companies. To find out how teens were being served and, more importantly, whether they were well informed when they decided to get a cell phone, we conducted a field survey. In doing so, we asked teens to visit the outlets of five cell phone companies and one retailer.

Each time, we were present to note the words and behaviors of the salespeople. We have been forced to find 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 if they would use their cell phones a lot or how many minutes they needed. And only 13 (36%) asked them when they would use their cell phone.

However, we believe that these questions are essential for anyone who wants to help young consumers choose the plan that suits their needs. Sellers have also been stingy with information. Only six out of 36 salespeople (16.5%) explained to our youth investigators the difference between an "à la carte" service and a package. And only 14 out of 36 sellers (39%) explained the features of either of the two plans to them.

Finally, most failed to provide important information. For example, the fact that when you sign a contract, you make a long-term commitment was mentioned by only 2 of 36 salespeople (5.5%) (no one indicated that it cost money to end the contract). 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 get their own cell phones? Are they well protected by applicable laws? To find out, we first reviewed existing legislation in Quebec, Canada and elsewhere in the world.

One of the things we learned was that the laws that currently exist in Quebec and Canada protect children more specifically than adolescents. And that there are international rules that can protect teenagers that we could learn from. Could a young consumer who bought a cell phone without fully understanding the consequences of his action be able to evade his obligations?

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