THE GIZMO: MosquitoTone ringtones.
NOW HEAR THIS: Who knew a high-pitched, hard-to-hear tone dubbed the Mosquito could cause such buzz?
In Britain, products emitting the ultrasonic Mosquito frequencies have been heralded as a godsend and decried as an infringement on human rights.
Here and abroad, the Mosquito was the most popular mobile phone ringtone download of 2006.
Now the Mosquito is going commercial.
Sony's Columbia/TriStar Pictures recently used a subtle buzz tone to connect some viewers to the theme of the film "The Messengers," a spooky drama in which a child can see and hear things that her parents cannot.
SAY WHAT? This month, the MosquitoTone is being exploited as a marketing tool to get people to sit up and notice Kentucky Fried Chicken's new Boneless Variety Bucket.
But talk about target marketing. If you're over 40, this tech trick will probably pass you by. You won't feel the urge to look up when the 17 kilohertz "eeeeeeeek" sounds as that KFC bucket is introduced with a close-up shot.
The problem for middle-aged and older folks is that your hearing ain't what it used to be. You've lost the ability to hear high frequencies - maybe even tones a lot lower than this one.
CHICKENING OUT: "I couldn't hear it myself," confessed KFC spokesperson Laurie Schalow with a laugh during our recent commercial de-briefing. "I had to get our Webmaster, who's younger, to point out where it comes in."
"We did test marketing, and knew its limitations," Schalow continued. "But that plays into the dual mission for this spot. One aspect is to engage our audience with new technology, as we also did last year with a commercial that required viewers to freeze-frame their TiVo or other digital video recorder to see a secret message.
"This spot, in particular, aims to get the attention of tech-savvy parents in their 20 and 30s, to suggest that the Boneless Variety Bucket is a product that both they and their picky kids will like."
Children are also visible in the "commershill," of course, delighting over the eats. Their peers are even more likely to hear and respond to the MosquitoTone than their parental units.
But KFC doesn't want watchdog groups to draw odious comparisons to the famous 19th-century Russian behavioral psychologist Ivan Pavlov, who conditioned dogs to salivate, anticipating food at the ringing of a bell.
"We're only airing this campaign in primetime," Schalow said. "It's not really skewed to kids."
A NOISY START: British inventor Howard Stapleton wasn't trying to charm kids when he dreamed up the original application of the MosquioTone in 2005. He wanted to create a noisemaker to chase malingering teenagers away from public spots.
"A convenience shopkeeper in Maethyr Tydfil" [a town in Wales, about 250 west of London] "was complaining to me about the loiterers outside," said Stapleton in a trans-Atlantic call.
He first suggested piping the classical music "that most kids detest" into the area, but the cost for equipment and performance rights made that impractical. Then he remembered a visit to a battery factory with his father, a managing director for Eveready Europe, when he was 12 or 13.
"They were using ultrasonic welding to glue plastic parts together. The sound was so horrible to my ears that I had to run out," Stapleton recalled. "But none of the adults were bothered by it at all."
That idea stuck with Stapleton, who was 40 when he came up with the Mosquito Kid Deterent Device.
Hung overhead - just out of reach - the small box projects enough sound (at 99 decibels) to get sensitive-eared young people in the vicinity "agitated in about seven or eight minutes, and then severely anxious to move on within 15," Stapleton said. "But because of presbycusis, the biological process of aging ears, older people don't hear it."
Stapleton's company, Compound Security Systems, has sold hundreds of the devices in the United Kingdom for use at train stations, shopping malls and other places where teens congregate.
The inventor has a version with a light detector for playground use. It only starts humming after dark. And he's working on another version for schools that would put out its punishing sound only when classrooms become unruly.
All this has not come without protests by civil liberties groups, though.
"It's basically subjecting children to a dog whistle," declared Jen Corlew, of the British advocacy group Liberty, in a recent interview. "This is part of a larger pattern of demonizing young people in this country."
Here in the U.S., the devices are being sold, for $750 a pop, at www.kidsbegone.com.
WHAT GOES AROUND, HUMS AROUND: Being clever creatures, young people have learned to exploit the MosquitoTone to their own, devious ends.
Last year, the technology was hijacked as "Teen Buzz," a 17.6 kilohertz tone passed around the Internet as a downloadable mobile phone ringtone. In phone-forbidden zones such as classrooms, students can get text message or call alerts while their "old fogey" teachers are none the wiser.
"We sell our official version through mobile phone providers, which had a great year with it," said Stapleton. "Unfortunately, it was also the most copied ringtone of 2006. And Sony recently used it in the ad campaign for that movie ["The Messengers"] without bothering to take a license.
"Still, at the end of the day, all this has given us fantastic press coverage, which we hope to leverage again at year's end with the the MosquitoTone Alarm Clock that only kids can hear."
"If people under 20 can't hear the higher tones there or on the KFC advert, they've possibly got damaged hearing," warned Stapleton, adding, "All the rock concerts, the home hi-fi and the MP3 players cranked too loud can take a toll on your hearing. And it won't come back. Take that as a warning." *