The Thinker

Ain’t young or hip enough for Virgin Mobile

Are you cool enough to own a Virgin Mobile phone? Apparently I am not, but the company is glad to sell me their phones anyhow. Based on my calculations I am at least twice as old as their target demographic: young and hip adults.

A lesser known fact about Virgin Mobile is that it targets cheapskates. You have to be something of a cheapskate to own a prepaid phone, which is still offered by many of their plans. Owning a prepaid phone implies that you apparently don’t plan on actually using the phone that much. That’s why I am with Virgin Mobile. I use my cell phone maybe once a week, and often less than that. It’s there for emergencies and convenience. Because I have been on their service a long time, I am grandfathered in under an old plan. I pay twenty one dollars a quarter, unless I exceed my prepaid minutes, which rarely happens. That’s also probably a price I would be willing to pay if I were a young adult who was stretched for cash and needed a cell phone. I didn’t have these options when I was a wild and crazy thing.

The thing about being a cheapskate is you don’t usually want to be thought of as a cheapskate. Virgin Mobile has figured this out, which is why its sites and ads are plastered with hip young adults, and their ringtones tend to be loud, jarring and obnoxious. Virgin Mobile people apparently are skinny. They wear designer jeans. They are pictured at wild parties. Their hair tends to be longish but at least washed. They often come with smiles on their faces that look like they just won a contest on how many people could be stuffed into a phone booth. (Wait a minute: they probably have no idea what a phone booth is.) They are not afraid to be loud, either visually or aurally.

If you dare, call Virgin’s customer service number (1-888-322-1122). First you get blasted by what sounds like a jazzed up ringtone. Then of course you get the Virtual Virgin Adviser and have to work your way through the usual confusing menus or try to say what you want in English or Spanish and hope their software interprets you correctly. The Virtual Virgin Adviser sounds like he still has acne. He probably isn’t captain of the high school football team, but instead he comes across more as voted Most Popular.

A couple of times I made it through the virtual adviser and actually talked to a “Live Adviser” (yes, they call them that). They too sound young and hip and clearly they have been coached to feign enthusiasm and youth. I assume it is an effective strategy because the owner of Virgin Mobile, Virgin Airlines and other affiliated companies is Richard Branson, and you don’t sail around the world in your own high tech and custom made balloon by not knowing how to make some serious money. Still, it is annoying. As a cheap middle-aged guy, I’d gladly select another company just as cheap with less cool advisers and boring sites. I just haven’t found them, or figured it wasn’t worth the effort. After all, my unused minutes keep accumulating. It’s unlikely I will ever need to spend them.

While I tend to be inured to design, I will confess that one of the harder things about sticking with Virgin Mobile is that its cell phones are ugly. Their ugliness is primarily because of all the glowing red. Virgin Mobile has been going with a bright red theme and it’s going to stick to it. I guess it’s part of its branding. Which means your cell phone wallpaper is likely to be a bright red and your ringtones, unless you are half dead, will wake even a sleep-deprived teen from a deep slumber.

So I may have to buy a cricKet phone someday, because they cater to us older folks with their inoffensive green color schemes and their tiny but at least familiar looking keyboards. Unfortunately, their cheapest plan is $35 a month, which is probably why I am still using Virgin Mobile and putting up with its garish phones, hip “live advisers” and obnoxious ring tones. I also have to put up with its limited coverage area. In some states it is hard to use the phone at all, as I discovered when I spent a week in South Dakota. That’s because they piggyback on top of Sprint’s cellphone network, and Sprint serves mostly metropolitan areas along the coasts. That’s probably the real reason Virgin Mobile is so cheap because if you are not near an urban area you are probably out of luck. Fortunately, 98% of the time I am near my house, so it’s only a problem when traveling.

Aside from Virgin Mobile’s low, low prices, there is at least one other reason I stay with them. I recently lost yet another cell phone. Fortunately, I paid only ten dollars for it. Even more fortunately, it was easy to replace it with another ugly, piece of crap phone. I went to their web site, searched on “replacement phone” and within minutes I had another ugly piece of crap phone on its way, for $7.99 plus tax. It probably cost them more to ship it to me than the phone is worth. And now it sits in my back pocket waiting for calls that rarely come. As I expected, no one left me any voice mail in the interim.

If I have some advice for Richard Branson, it would be to create a division of Virgin Mobile for us older, unhip Americans. There are a lot of us and given the downturn in the economy, many of us need to economize anyhow. We just don’t want to deal with all the hip stuff. Moreover, we would prefer cell phones that don’t suggest our pockets are on fire. In addition, we don’t want to talk to a virtual adviser, but with a live one please. I might even let you charge me some cell phone minutes for the privilege. Deal?


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