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Asia's Mobile Ads

Kurumi Itoga and Yuu Itou are hooked on their cellphones. But they hardly ever talk on them.

Instead, the 26-year-old friends use their phones to do e-mail, buy music and surf the Web. As they do so, the two plunge into a sea of banner ads, branded contests and coupons worth over a hundred million marketing dollars in Japan last year.

In Asia, tiny cellphone screens have become electronic wallets that buy Coke from vending machines and contests that dole out McDonald's coupons on the phone screen to winners. A recent ad even encourages Japanese to use their cellphones to download a dancing spiny-legged mushroom named Docomo-dake, the mascot of wireless carrier NTT DoCoMo Inc.

Not long ago, the value of such cluttered, cutesy Asian advertising was lost in translation to Madison Avenue. But now, U.S. marketers are taking notice and even taking notes. In the past three months, Japan's biggest ad agency, Dentsu Inc., has given tutorials for Microsoft Corp. and Publicis Groupe's Arc Worldwide on the ways people in Asia behave with gadgets, and how Dentsu uses them to reach consumers when and where it wants. "Now they are very interested in hearing about us," says Hideyuki Nagasawa, Dentsu's interactive marketing director. "This is a big change."

Asia's cellphone edge is cultural, not technological. Among the Chinese, cellphones have become such important status symbols that relatives at funeral rites burn paper cellphone effigies, so the dead will have their mobiles in the afterlife. "People couldn't imagine being dead without it," says Intel Corp. staff anthropologist Genevieve Bell, who spent three years studying mobile phone users in seven Asian countries. "The phone is a metaphor of cultural practices as much as it is a piece of technology," she says.

Desperate for new ways to talk with consumers who are tuning out of traditional media, two giant U.S. radio broadcasters, Viacom Inc.'s Infinity Broadcasting and Clear Channel Communications Inc., this month said they would like to start zapping things such as songs, concert tickets and promotions to U.S. cellphones, although neither has announced a partnership with a mobile carrier.

In the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission effectively prohibits marketers from sending unsolicited commercial messages to cellphones and other wireless devices, although consumers can opt in to receive some promotional content. In Asia, marketers and spammers alike have faced fewer regulations, with Japan and Singapore among the few countries to propose laws to limit unsolicited messages.

For now, "most ad agencies are not yet well equipped to handle the new job of making great communications for the phone," says Brian Fetherstonhaugh, chief executive of WPP Group's OgilvyOne. Last month, he gathered staff and top clients from around the world for a series of summit meetings on the topic in Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. The meetings' subtitle: "Don't Get Left Behind."

One reason U.S. cellphone habits are more utilitarian is that the gadgets caught on first with executives who needed to stay in touch. Some Americans turn on their cellphones only in emergencies. In the U.S., "the cellphone is an inferior version of what you already have at home and work," says anthropologist Mimi Ito, of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and Japan's Keio University.

It's impossible to predict exactly how cellphone culture will develop in the U.S. But in Asia, young people have been the drivers. Cellphones were adopted early on in Japan by girls living in cramped households, because they lacked other private communication, such as personal telephones and Internet access.

Cellphones now are defining a generation of Asians. There's nothing geeky about calling a South Korean a "technosexual," explains Jaehang Park, a strategy executive for Korean ad agency Cheil Communications Inc. "Devices like cellphones define how trend-setting you are," he says. One-quarter of all South Koreans maintain "cyworlds," photo Web logs that can be updated using a cameraphone.

Experimenting in Asia, U.S. companies have already learned that cellphones offer access to consumers' deepest desires and concerns. In Japan, Procter & Gamble Co.'s Whisper brand of feminine-hygiene products has signed up 80,000 women to receive messages about their "happy cycle." A February message: "Your skin gets even more sensitive and dry, especially during this period. ... Try not to use new skin-care products."

Cellphones' ubiquity in Asia can provide a link between traditional ad channels, such as print and broadcast. Pfizer Inc.'s Acuvue contact lenses created a campaign for Japanese teens to "become part of the group, get talked about and get involved in their cellphones," says Rikiya Ikeda, media-planning director at Pfizer ad agency Universal-McCann Japan, a unit of Interpublic Group of Cos. The agency attached freebie cellphone accessories to billboards near schools; the accessories showed Acuvue's Web address. Acuvue's market share of two-week lenses jumped to 36% from 32%.

American youth are well on their way to developing a cellphone culture of their own, as marketers borrow applications pioneered with Asian youth. Already, the U.S. market for downloading ringtones has grown to $217 million, says Jupiter Research. "American kids talk a lot on the phone, and it has become an extension of personality," says Nicholas Lehman, the vice president of interactive business at Viacom's MTV and VH1 networks in New York. "The next step is to use it for entertainment."

On a trip to Tokyo this month, he was impressed by the cellphone-size animation being developed by MTV's channels in Japan and South Korea. "It is not just about regurgitating what is already on air. It is about creating original authentic experiences for the phone," he says.

Asia's other big cellphone advantage is that people here don't mind thumb-typing text messages, even in complex character languages. Americans, too, have access to basic cellphone messaging technology, but persuading them to use the phone for text-based communication has been tough. Only one in four U.S. cellphone users has sent a text message in the past month, according to a study by Pew Internet & American Life Project conducted in January and February.

Japan led Asia's phone-text revolution, largely because of a taboo against talking on phones in public there. Though video-over-phones is getting a lot of buzz, it is text -- not video -- that has been the killer app in Asian cellphone marketing.

Nobody expects Americans to give up talking. But elsewhere, in Asia and Europe, TV programs have helped convert cellphone talkers into texters. News Corp.'s Star TV built a successful game show in China by luring viewers to download bingo boards onto their cellphones and play along at home. "We are bridging the gap between me watching a half-hour of TV, and me being in the street and continuing to do branded activities," says Geoffrey Handley, founder of an Auckland, New Zealand-based Asian cellphone marketing firm called Hyper Factory.

A similar approach taken by "American Idol" on News Corp.'s Fox TV kick-started text messaging in the U.S. by encouraging viewers to vote for contestants by sending in text messages. Now nearly two-thirds of Americans ages 18 to 27 send cellphone text messages.

Advertisers aim to keep U.S. consumers responsive to text messages by not overloading them. Ogilvy's Mr. Fetherstonhaugh recalls the "aha" moment he had on a recent trip to Shanghai, after talking to a nightclub owner who registers his best customers for SMS text alerts. "They get a brief, respectful message letting them know about special promotions and when their favorite bands are playing," says Mr. Fetherstonhaugh. Now he advises clients back in the U.S. to send customers just the information they want -- and no more.

 

Geoffrey A. Fowler, The Wall Street Journal. April 25, 2005

Copyright © 2005 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.. All rights reserved.