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Seniors say, 'I'd buy a cellphone if ...'

Colorful full-page ads in newspapers show people happily chatting on cellphones. In one ad, a proud father snuggles his baby. Another ad features a 30-something businesswoman. Still another shows a young man grinning broadly as he clasps a tiny phone to his ear.

The message is clear: These phones and their youthful users are definitely cool. Yet the industry is now also wooing a different group, largely untapped: older customers. Only 39 percent of Americans over 65 own cellphones, compared with 80 percent of those between 19 and 65.

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But still conspicuously absent are any silver-haired models who could send a message to this group, saying: These phones are for you, too. Except for one businessman with a sprinkling of gray in his hair, most ads feature those in their 20s and 30s.

Still, even if the ads eventually include older models, another challenge remains for the industry: convincing those in this group that they need a cellphone.

One major stumbling block - confusing contracts. Fees and service agreements are so complicated that they might as well be written in Greek.

Coming to the rescue is AARP. In response to members' complaints, the senior advocacy group is calling for simpler bills and more flexible contracts. If it succeeds, that will help cellphone users of all ages.

And then there are the phones themselves, which often come equipped with cameras and gee-whiz gizmos. Vicky Thomas of Weston, Conn., a baby boomer who helps companies market to her generation and beyond, finds that most older people who want a cellphone say, "Don't give me a lot of buttons. I just want to place a call, hit send, and be done."

Older people, marketers observe, tend to be more matter-of-fact than younger cellphone users. They'll say, "Yes, I'll meet you there in 10 minutes. Bye."

If cellphone companies really want to market to this group, Ms. Thomas says, "just give us bigger numbers and keep it simple."

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Keep it simple. That's a plea many of the rest of us would echo as well. Miniaturization and complexity have their limits. Simplicity is not a bad word. Often, when a company makes a change that is really designed for an older market, it doesn't turn off a younger market, Thomas notes.

In fact, some design changes can unexpectedly help all generations in a variety of settings. Think of curb cuts at intersections, originally designed to help people with mobility problems. Now they benefit almost everyone - parents pushing strollers, travelers wheeling suitcases, children riding bicycles. Similarly, grab bars in showers are convenient for all ages.

The possibilities are promising. So, Madison Avenue, how about a few mature models in your cellphone ads? And phone manufacturers, how about a return to simpler designs for those who don't need all those gee-whiz bells and whistles, such as cameras and - coming soon - even tiny TV screens?

As an older generation discovers the pleasure of going wireless and connecting with loved ones anywhere, their baby-boom offspring may benefit too, finding reassurance in being able to keep in closer touch with Mom and Dad. As they do, some might teasingly update the old public service announcement to read, "It's 10 p.m. Do you know where your parents are?"


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