Master’s student Rosanna Totino says many people use cellphones to satisfy personal needs.
Master’s student Rosanna Totino says many people use cellphones to satisfy personal needs.

How attached are you to your cellphone? If you think of your phone as more personal than functional, you probably can’t live without it.

For her master’s research in the Department of Marketing and Consumer Studies, Rosanna Totino is testing the theory that people who are highly “involved” with their cellphones are more likely to pay attention to and read ads on their mobile devices.

“The literature suggests that if individuals use a medium to meet needs that go beyond functional ones, then content – including ads – can be used to meet those needs,” she says.

Totino explains that people use cellphones for different reasons. According to consumption theory, people choose to use a product to get different types of value: emotional, social, functional, conditional and epistemic. Adopting these values as goals is believed to predict an individual’s level of involvement with the product itself.

For example, people who use their cellphones for emotional reasons do so because they want to relax, pass the time or distract themselves from what they’re supposed to be doing. They use their phones primarily for entertainment or recreational purposes.

The social category refers to people who use their phones as a status symbol to identify themselves as part of a group. “You can be more like your friends,” says Totino. “You’re more accepted by others, for example, if you have a certain type of cellphone. It’s more about belonging – using your cellphone as a badge item to belong to a certain group.”

Functional reasons for using a cellphone include contacting others and looking up information. Those who use their cellphones in situations such as looking up directions when they’re lost or calling for help in an emergency are considered conditional users.

People who use cellphones to discover and learn new things fall into the epistemic category.

Totino believes that people who use their cellphones for emotional, social or epistemic reasons are more involved with their devices and more open to receiving unsolicited text ads. “I’m going to be more open to the content, and at that point, any content becomes interesting to me. That could be an ad.”

She is using these goals as “antecedents to involvement” to predict how attached people become to their phones.

“I’m a very functional person,” she says. “If you take away my cellphone, I wouldn’t die, but I’m not in the age group of my sample. I know individuals in that age group who, if you took away their phone, would be really distressed. They’re carrying it around with them all the time.”

Totino is in the process of analyzing cellphone data from about 540 undergraduate students at U of G. Most of the mobile ads they received were from their cellphone providers.

People who use their cellphones for a specific purpose are less likely to want to see ads pop up on their screens, she says. “If you’re very goal-oriented from a functional perspective, you’re more likely to delete the ad without reading it.”

Having a goal such as contacting a friend or looking up information makes cellphone users more focused on their task. As a functional user, you’re more likely to be annoyed by the ad, she says. “That content is not of interest.”

Totino points out that cellphones have been identified as the “fifth medium,” with a marketing potential that has yet to be fully realized. “It’s a platform that’s becoming more and more important, and it’s really underdeveloped in Canada.”

She says mobile advertising offers marketers a new way to reach potential customers wherever they are, but cellphone users tend to regard their devices as more personal and may not welcome unsolicited ads. Marketers may benefit from a better understanding of which cellphone users are more receptive to advertising content. Totino explains that while the ad’s relevance to the consumer is important, the recipient’s openness to the content is also important.

“Just like a commercial you see on TV,” she says, “even if the product is not something you’re interested in, what makes you more receptive to even looking at it?”