Cingular Wireless stores today will start selling a small, brightly colored cell phone called the Firefly, becoming the first national carrier to offer a mobile phone tailor-made for children 12 years old and younger.
Kids are already sold on cell phones -- they are topping holiday wish lists, according to some surveys -- but companies are also pitching the products to parents. Cingular will be advertising the Firefly in magazines such as Parenting, Good Housekeeping and People.
"We're taking a relatively subtle approach, primarily because this is an untapped segment so we're not sure about the impact of the product," said David Garver, executive director of marketing for Cingular, which is selling the phone in most of the country except for the West Coast, where it will launch after the holidays.
Chicago-based Firefly Mobile Inc. designed the phone with a simple keypad and phone list that restricts who the child can call. Last week, the company embarked on a 15-city tour to take a security message to parents, while demonstrating the product to children as well. The company also advertises in Nick Jr. Family Magazine, a magazine for parents.
"We're doing what we call bifocal marketing," said Fred Bullock, chief marketing officer of Firefly, which debuted the phones in Target retail stores over the summer and at Limited Too outlets earlier this month. "The message for parents is that you have control that you don't have on a regular adult phone," he said. "From the kids' perspective, they're more interested in the fun aspects of their phone," such as the bright colors and the fact that it lights up when it rings.
The phones have been selling for $99.99 at Target, with 30 minutes of air time; Cingular will sell them for $49.99 (after a $25 rebate) with various options for service contracts and monthly rates.
As cell phones get cheaper and more indispensable to consumers' lifestyles, they are gaining acceptance in every segment of society, even among children. Companies including Firefly, Walt Disney Co. and Enfora LP have designed phones for children, complete with easy-to-use features that appeal to parents as tools for safety, security and education. A California company called WaveMarket Inc. plans to launch a locating service early next year that allows parents to track kids using global positioning systems on their phones.
Some critics have complained about marketing the technology to children and said electromagnetic radiation from cell phones may harm a child's physical development.
"There's all kinds of ways cell phones can be not good for a child's development," not only because of the potential physical hazards but also because they distract children from normal interaction, said Diane E. Levin, a professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston. As for companies' safety and security message, she said, "that's a marketing ploy that exploits the culture of fear, which is harmful to a child's sense of well being."
Sellers of the product say they're trying to balance those concerns with the demands of kids and busy parents.
"Going down the market [in age] is controversial," said Ken Eisner, vice president for Simply Wireless, a Fairfax-based retail chain. "I think we do have a responsibility to market properly." Simply Wireless plans to hold events Friday and Sunday to promote giving phones, including the Firefly, as gifts but will not advertise on children's TV programs, he said.
Cell phone ownership among 10- and 11-year-olds is 14 percent, compared with 35 percent among 12- to 14-year-olds, said Ben Rogers, vice president of GFK NOP, a consumer-research firm. Similar research has not been done on children younger than 10, he said.
Even at age 10 or 11, kids are savvy about products and want features such as games, ringtones and cameras on their phones, Rogers said, and some reject the notion of a "kiddie" phone. "Why would I want that? It's just an invisible leash for my parents," one 11-year-old boy told Rogers in a focus group. And many parents recognize that if their children do not like the phone, they will not use it and it will not serve its function, he said.
Firefly Mobile has been appealing to kids by offering games and contests through online sites for children such as Neopets.com and Nick.com, the Nickelodeon cable channel's site. The Firefly Touring Taxi game, in which kids help direct a taxi through the city, was played 3 million times in the two months after it was launched in August. One online contest asked kids to design decorative coverings for the Firefly phones, and the company received 51,000 entries.
"It's getting kids involved in the brand," said Bullock, and kids talk to each other about the product. In September, after the start of the school year, Firefly's call center started receiving spikes in calls from parents whose children had heard about Firefly from other kids.