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December 14, 2007

Tech GP: Ads likely coming to cell phone near you

One ringy-dingy.

Two ringy-dingies.

Remember Ernestine? She may be making a comeback. Or at least her attitude may be making a comeback.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, it's a shame you missed "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" on TV in the '60s and '70s. Rent a DVD and enjoy it.

Anyway, Ernestine was the bra-trap-tugging, pucker-mouthed, nasal-talking telephone operator brought to life by Lily Tomlin. Everybody loved those sketches. Often she would go through a session where she devastatingly annoyed some poor phone customer and capped it off with my favorite line: ``We don't care. We don't have to care. We're the phone company.''

That line always hit a home run for me. It just seemed to fit the phone companies' monopoly situation perfectly.

Well, that was before they broke up Ma Bell, and a lot of telephone conversations have gone over the wires since then. Some competition did actually spring up in the telephony market, and I'd have to say it did make things a little better.

Of course, that was all before the next big thing in communications: the cell phone.

Just the other day an interesting milestone zipped by. According to research firm Informa, cell phone subscriptions reached 3.3 billion on Thursday, Nov. 29. That's half the number of people living on Earth.

I would think it's no wonder then, that AT&T announced a few days later that it was getting out of the pay-phone business. When was the last time you went into a phone booth? I know I can't remember my last time.

If you dwell a little on the thought, that's an awful lot of cell phones. Also, a lot of people with cell phones, although some people have more than one.

That would seem like, maybe, in the neighborhood of 3 billion people. Probably most of them with enough disposable income to have a cell phone. That's quite an audience.

Are you catching my drift here, folks? A lot of people selling stuff would sure like to have all those cell phone users listen to a sales pitch.

Or two. Or three, or more.

And they would pay decent money to have that opportunity.

So here's where we get back to Ernestine and her cavalier attitude.

The cell phone companies are in control of this audience. Very certainly they control it. They've quite literally got you by the hip, or pocket or purse, or wherever you happen to carry your cell. When the phone rings, you react, don't you?

Once you've signed your contract with them, ``they don't have to care." And even if you don't like it, you probably won't switch to another cell phone company, because by the time your contract runs out, all of them will be doing it. There won't be much point in changing companies for that reason.

The situation can only be described as an advertiser's dream.

And the cell phone companies are going to make it come true.

You can bet on it. If I make only one prediction for 2008, it will be that it will be the year of the development of cell-phone advertising.

I'm not even going to claim that I have any kind of special insight into this kind of thing. All you have to do to come to this conclusion is read the agreement you sign. I recently re-upped with Verizon, and there was a paragraph that spelled out explicitly that they have the right to use you for advertising fodder.

I don't know what forms it will take, but it will happen. Whether we like it or not. There is too much money at stake for the phone companies and too many possibilities at stake for businesses that want you to see what they have to say.

I sincerely hope I'm wrong. But I won't be. And you can quote me on that.

Bruce Endries is former systems manager at The Daily Star. He can be reached by e-mail at