Wednesday, November 08, 2000

They're smokin'

They’re hot, they’re cool, they’re irritating. They make the user look trendy and with-it, and make non-users whine about selfishness and pollution and space violations. They’re easy to carry around, and are handy for passing the time. They may be bad for your health, but once you get used to them, it’s hard to go without. Are cell phones the new cigarettes?

For teenagers in Great Britain, anyway, the answer may be yes. A study has found that smoking among British teens has gone down at the same time that mobile-phone use has gone up. Coincidence? The researchers think not, reasoning that the phones satisfy the same craving for coolness, rebelliousness, and adult annoyance as cigarettes. And as an added bonus, you can use them to surreptitiously send text messages to your pals in class. Smoking in class tends to be somewhat less easy to pull off.

Will the same trend hold true in the States, where cigarettes are cheaper and cell phones more expensive? I guess we should hope so, though we’re probably just trading second-hand smoke for second-hand conversations and lung tumors for brain tumors. It’s somewhat amusing to imagine bad-seed teens hanging out by the lockers, talking on their cell-phones. Will some new band be remaking “Smoking in the Boys’ Room” as “Calling from the Boys’ Room?” Will tough guys start rolling up cell phones in their t-shirt sleeves?

Maybe not. But one thing that’s sure to change is the way cell phones are marketed. In Europe, it turns out, they’re sold more as fashion accessories than as communication accessories. “Mobile phone marketing in Europe promotes self-image and identity, which resembles cigarette advertising,” wrote the researchers, and that can only mean one thing: Look for the Marlboro man to be tucking a phone in his saddlebags.

And look for advertisers to target younger audiences with flashier phones. If it means that phones will be touted more on MTV than on my TV, that’s a good thing. If it means that cell-phone-service companies will stop calling me on a daily basis because I’m no longer in their prime demographic, that’s a very good thing. If it means that mobile phone use will switch from long-term contracts to quick-fix, allowance-minded pay-as-you-go plans, that’s a thing that’s good enough to maybe get me using the darn things. Hey, you know, I may be over 40, but I can still be hip. Just don’t ask me to smoke.

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