Kim Penstone

A cellular conspiracy

2005-06-09 12:33

I'm what you'd call a potential conspiracy theorist. While I don't go surfing the web and scouring the papers actively looking for suspiciously suspicious affairs, I'm an all-too-keen listener should someone else choose to bend my ear in that general direction.

So, for example, when my friend Alex shared with me the controversy surrounding the Neil Armstrong moon landing, I gave her my full attention.

At the time, I recall being convinced that the Americans had staged the whole thing. There was something suspicious about the flag flying in the non-existent wind, something odd about the shadow.

(Frankly, I forget the details, which is what relegates me to wanna-be status in the conspiracy stakes.)

But you get the gist.

Being a journalist by trade and thus a cynic by nature, I have no problem believing that half of what we believe has been manufactured by "the government" (or other such shady sources).

Add to that the fact that I work on the fringes of the world of smoke and mirrors (that's marketing and advertising), and you can understand why I listen with my head cocked at a perpetual angle of disbelief.

It's also a good enough excuse, I think, for coming up with a theory of my own, based entirely on truthful happenings in my own life.

So indulge me.

This particular theory relates to the cellphone industry. While there are many, many theories in telecoms (most of them true, I'm sure) I have yet to come across this one.

You see, last week, my phone stopped accepting any and all calls from Telkom lines. Seriously. It still takes calls from cellphones, or calls that purport to come via landlines, but actually connect via the cellular network. But it's simply not interested in talking to Telkom.

'Working' on the problem

Of course, I've reported the problem. In fact, I've reported it almost every day since I realised what the problem was. I even have a reference number. And I was told yesterday that they're "working on the problem".

But I doubt it. I can't remember how many patient and kind people I've spoken to at the call centre, but not one of them seems to believe me, and they all seem completely confused when I explain the problem to them.

Of course, it's my belief that over the next couple of months, they're going to receive more and more calls of this ilk. What better way to increase the traffic over the cellular network than to ban a bunch of phones from receiving Telkom calls?

It's taken only a week for my family and friends (and even some work colleagues) to realise my phone's special disability. They've already abandoned their landlines in favour of their cells.

If the cellular operators are clever, they'll work together to pull this one off. They'll do it in batches, disabling some lines, then re-enabling them after a week or so. There are enough cellphones in this country for that to have a pretty impressive effect, I think.

And it's not all that wacky a theory.

Marketers have been using this tactic for years, especially in the technology arena. They call it 'compatibility', and they use it to create products with their profits, not our ease-of-use, in mind.

My cellphone, for want of a better explanation, is currently "incompatible" with Telkom.

Sure, it was better for me when it was compatible with Telkom. But the bottom line is that it doesn't take too much effort to change the habits of those who want to contact me - especially as the alternative (picking up a cellphone) is already part of their set of daily habits.

To take the theory a little further, think about it this way: There are traditionally two means of increasing turnover - increasing the price, and increasing the frequency of use. The cellular operators are sitting in a pretty pickle with price. Their only means of increasing the profitability per customer, is to increase frequency of use.

And this particular plot seems to manage that quite well, if through nothing else than the creation of a habit that bodes well for future cellphone usage.

At least, that's my theory. And the reason I'm holding the marketing department(s) responsible is simply that they're paid to think "out of the box". If this was a marketing tactic - and it could be lauded in public - it would be deemed genius.

  • Kim Penstone is hoping that the publication of this theory brings the wicked cellular plot to its proverbial knees and that her phone is restored to its previous compatible glory. She humbly asks that if anyone knows of a technical reason why this theory is completely daft, they keep it to themselves. It's her first theory, and she's proud of it.

  • For the more serious side of marketing and advertising, also written by Kim Penstone, go to

  • Send your comments to Kim Penstone or discuss this column now in our debating forum.

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