Air Play

An irksome reality of marketing these days is that just when you figure out the game, they change the shape of the ball. Some new technological apocalypse/utopia arises that you can peddle a seminar on, launch a division to exploit, analyze within an inch of its life and gravely predict will Change Everything.

With the Internet falling back into the marketing mainstream, TiVo anxiety starting to wane and content marketing losing at least some of its heat, we all deserve a moment of calm to focus on something less breathless. Outdoor advertising, maybe.

Forget it. Here comes the Wireless World—cell phones with cojones.

Mobile marketing has been a candidate for the technological It Thing for a couple of years. Now, though, it is really starting to gather steam, with telcos, media companies and agency executives taking a long, hard look at the future of the cell phone.

After all, mere conversation is so 20th century. Wireless promises Web access, electronic gaming, music, commercial messages like digital pan handlers, celebrity voicemail (“Hello, this is The Rock. Jack can’t smell what you’re cooking right now”) and full-motion screens (which could really change phone sex forever).

Bulked up like a marketing Mark McGwire, mobile will no doubt offer the same pros and cons as any hot new ad-tech. It will be labeled the greatest ad opportunity since the invention of writing and the worst threat to noncommercial culture since humans began to live in cities, the latest attack on innocent youth and a rad innovation for reaching early-adopting adolescents.

Whatever. One thing is clear: Our side’s playing catch-up.

Media folks on the wireless wagon all note that Europe and Japan are way ahead of the U.S., in large part because our technology (2G, in cell talk) lags theirs (they already enjoy 3G cell life). Even if we wanted mobile phone sex, for example, we’d still be stuck with the old, pedes trian, words-only kind.

One media veteran tells me he hasn’t been this dazzled by something in a long time, but warns that we’re on the wrong end of a wireless-technology gap … with Finland.

Whew. That’s rubbing software in the wound. (Why Finland? That’s where Nokia is headquartered.)

When we do get up to speed, there will still be considerable hurdles. For one, the makers of cell phones are already finding it increasingly uneconomical to offer free phones with usage plans, so these little devils will cost at least $100-300. As the parent of a teenager who has almost lost his cell phone about 358 times in the six months he’s had it, that’s a price I’m not prepared to pay. (Besides, I just used up all my disposable income getting the kid a DVD player.)

Second, wireless isn’t effortless. It takes 13 keystrokes to type in “hello.”

Third, Americans aren’t exactly clamoring for cellular add-ons. All my son wants to do with his phone, when he can find it, is talk … endlessly.

Still, cell phones have so quickly become an integral part of our lives that these new souped-up versions probably have a lot better shot at realizing their promise than some of the other gimmickry of recent years.

But I’m still not giving one to my kid.