OPINION24 May 2010

Landlines – don't get too attached

News Opinion

BT’s latest ad tells us that if a conversation’s worth having, you should have it on a landline. If only survey respondents felt that way, writes Robert Bain.

BT’s latest TV ad is either a milestone in the history of telephone culture, or it’s somewhat at odds with reality.


BT ad

The ad depicts a young girl talking to her high-powered businessman dad over the phone, only for him to hurriedly end the call to rush off to some meeting in a glass office. The girl then tearfully tells her mother: “Whenever dad calls he’s always on his mobile. It’s like he just doesn’t want to talk to me.” So mum has a word with dad, who feels guilty, learns his lesson and uses a landline the next time he calls his little one.

“If a conversation’s worth having, use your BT landline,” says the soothing voiceover.

We would not be surprised if this approach were the result of market research. Not because it sounds true (which it doesn’t) but because market researchers are just as concerned about the decline of landlines as BT is, and as such are one of the few groups of people who could convince themselves that a call from a landline somehow means more than one from a mobile. Everyone knows the feeling of being cut off by someone when they’re on the go, but the idea of being upset simply because someone called you from a mobile is, in 2010, harder to credit.

So what do landlines and mobiles mean to us these days? One in seven people in the UK is now mobile-only. In the US about one in four have cut the cord, rising to four in ten if you include those who still have a landline but barely use it. Among young people it’s even higher and has been rising steadily for the past six or seven years. The Europe-wide average, according to Eurobarometer data from late last year, is about three in ten (although it varies widely from just 2% in Sweden to 75% in the Czech Republic). The Economist recently gave landlines about 15 years to live. It would be nice to think that respondents are attached to their landlines, but the evidence suggests they aren’t.

This worries market researchers. In the US, Pew Research warns that non-coverage bias is now “appearing regularly” in landline samples, with cell-onlys showing various demographic and attitudinal differences from the broader population. Among other things they are more likely to be young, to share a home with friends, to be non-white and to hold liberal views on certain social issues. In an analysis of 72 questions from surveys conducted in the past year, Pew found 29 whose results showed differences of 3% or more between landline-only and combined landline and cellphone samples.

So if there’s a distinctive culture associated with mobile use, what about landlines? Telephone usage among young people is a speciality of Dave Stenton’s from UK MR agency Voodoo. He told Research that, for people under 30, the landline is generally seen as “an annoyance”.

“It’s a necessity for broadband, but people don’t see why they need one,” he said. “They certainly don’t see any justification for the pricing, which can be about £15 a month. The feeling is that they’re paying over the odds to get this service and they’re not using it for calls. Some people don’t even have a handset plugged in.”

This means there’s a risk for researchers that, even if you reach young people on their landlines, you’ll be considered part of a broad category of unwanted callers. “There’s a perception that the volume of disruptive calls [received on landlines] has increased,” said Stenton. “It probably hasn’t, it’s just that no one else is calling on the landline. That’s another thing that increases the sense that this thing is an annoyance and an outdated piece of technology.”

While the BT ad doesn’t give a very convincing picture of how landlines fit into our culture, it does highlight how companies that are wedded to landlines are on the back foot. Market researchers should take note.