Disney pre-empts phone backlash

As Disney draws up a comms campaign for its launch of a mobile phone for kids, Sarah Robertson looks at how the company is preparing for criticism from consumer groups, government and concerned parents

Walt Disney is planning a PR campaign for a product that has proved controversial even before its launch: a mobile phone service for children.

Rolling out later this year in the US and UK, the service will be promoted as a 'family package', with an emphasis on children's phones being useful as a safety tool. Disney will also highlight the fact that its product has been designed for the over-tens.

Handsets will boast a GPS device so parents can track their children, and will be programmable to control who can be called. Meanwhile, parents will have the option of imposing spending limits, to avoid excessive use. Perhaps most importantly, internet access can be restricted to protect children from inappropriate material.

Disney believes it has a strong heritage as a trusted and responsible brand, which is why it has the confidence to venture into this potential minefield: the UK Government has recommended that under-eights are barred from using mobiles, and that under-12s use them 'sparingly'.

However, a raft of charities, industry groups and commentators have highlighted the downside of children using mobiles at all. The National Consumer Council, for instance, has specifically criticised Disney's move, and is lobbying for all phone firms to clarify their pricing structures.

Growing market
Disney will not be the first company to enter the children's mobile arena: last year saw the launch of the Teddyfone, which bills itself as a safety device and is promoted by consumer agency Cow PR. Less successful was Communic8's Mymo mobile, which was withdrawn.

Disney Internet Group corporate comms director Sandra van Vreedendaal is to oversee a pitch for a consumer brief to launch the phone in the UK - three agencies, including Porter Novelli (already retained by Disney for issues management), will fight it out for the contract (PRWeek, 5 May).

She says: 'In reality, children do have mobile phones and at the moment parents only have the choice of mobiles [mostly] designed for adults.'

But while parents will be able to exercise control over the Disney phone, young users will still be able to buy associated branded content, such as wallpaper and ringtones, which could raise concerns over peer pressure and pester power.

'Disney is being cheeky because it knows children's take-up of mobiles is massive. It is launching a device masquerading as a safety tool that actually provides entertainment,' says Cow PR director Clare Myddleton.

She adds that the Disney phone - unlike the Teddyfone - will include an  SMS service and internet connectivity, and will therefore have the potential to be misused by children. In other words, the phone will be similar to those made for adults - with sophisticated display screens - rather than previous, more basic kids' phones.

Van Vreedendaal responds that if Disney produced a phone without such a screen, it would be accused of targeting the under-tens.

The under-16s' mobile phone market in the UK is lucrative, with 33 per cent of five to nine-year-olds and 90 per cent of ten to 14-year-olds owning one, according to the Wireless World Forum. Other research, by Cow PR, shows that one in four children under ten now has a mobile. But the major manufacturers have avoided the children's market. In 2005, they all even signed up to a voluntary code of conduct not to market their services to children.

Disney will run its service via O2 , a tie-up that could prove contentious for the telco, argues What Mobile technology editor Jonathon Morris. 'There are going to be issues over cost if children can download content. As for the safety argument, giving children a phone does make them safer [in some respects], but it also makes them vulnerable to robberies,' he explains.

Louise Mackintosh, consumer director at technology agency Mantra PR, says marketing to children raises the same ethical debates regardless of the product. 'Disney [will be accused of] encouraging pester power, as children will always prefer branded phones,' she adds.

'There is an analogy between the food and mobile industries - if it wants to avoid [the attention of regulators], Disney should focus on marketing to the parents and bypass children altogether.'

In consultation
However, others believe that as long as Disney consults groups such as children's charities, teachers' associations, NGOs and government, further regulation need not be a concern. Disney's comms team, and its PR agencies, will have a crucial role here.

'It must ensure other groups are happy with the messaging or the launch could blow up in its face,' warns Golin Harris joint MD Matt Neale. 

As well as its safety message and argument that kids already use mobile phones anyway, Disney is also stressing that the handsets will emit lower levels of radiation than those already on the market, making the Disney phone the safest choice.

But it is clear that Disney will have to closely co-ordinate its in-house and agency comms - because critics will be quick to pounce should Mickey Mouse et al be seen to be exploiting a vulnerable group.

Phones and kids: the guidelines
Ofcom 'Mobile firms are restricted by the British Code of Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing. It dictates that comms should not "exploit [children's] credulity, loyalty, vulnerability or lack of experience".'

The Mobile Operators' Association 'After the Stewart Report in 2000, mobile phone firms agreed never to market to children. But parents do buy phones for their children. It is up to parents rather than mobile operators to weigh up the benefits and risks.'

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