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No Place Left to Hide

Corey Gottlieb was having a lousy day. The CEO of New York City's Targeted Media Partners was in San Francisco last month to install 200 flat-panel TV screens—worth about $3, 000 each—into the local Luxor cab fleet. But in tests, Gottlieb discovered that the metal mounts that support the screens were knocking customers on the knee as they climbed into the taxis. So he had to redesign the system, delaying the project at least a week. It was a slight setback for a venture aimed at delivering news, restaurant info and video ads at riders, but ultimately it didn't deflate Gottlieb's optimism. "The beauty of this is we can reach people when they're out of their homes, money's in their pockets and stores are still open."

Not to mention the fact that the passengers are also captive. You can turn off the TV; you can't very well get out of a moving cab. Ventures like Gottlieb's are making some accepted notions about advertising in the digital age seem pretty naive. Considering how the Web lets consumers customize news, entertainment and communications, some prognosticators have suggested that new technologies would give them control over intrusive commercials. Thanks to TiVo and the Internet, we were finally going to be masters of our living rooms, able to zip past the ads and watch only what we wanted, whenever we wanted.

Perhaps it's no surprise, but the advertising industry is striking back, pushing its message into environments where there's no such thing as the fast-forward button: elevators, cabs, bars, fitness clubs and fast-food restaurants. A billboard-only business backwater for decades, the industry known as outdoor advertising is now blossoming; its conferences are jampacked and revenues were up 6 percent last year, according to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. "It's the last mass medium," says OAAA president Nancy Fletcher. "With the changes taking place in the media landscape, outdoor [advertising] is just about the only way advertisers can predict and deliver a mega audience."

There are examples of this growth everywhere. Gottlieb's company and a few rivals have recently struck agreements to put TV screens in cabs in Boston, Chicago and Las Vegas, along with San Francisco. Then there are elevators, once a setting suitable only for staring at the floor in awkward silence. A division of newspaper giant Gannett whose name tells you how it views elevator riders—Captivate Networks—has put TV screens in more than 500 elevators in the last few years, mostly in the East. But they're now furiously moving westward. So, soon you'll be able to stare up at ads—in awkward silence.

All of these new ad networks do package useful information with the commercials. It's nice to get the sports scores in the elevator. The taxi screens will also be GPS-enabled, so you can watch your taxi's progress (or lack of it) on a map. But let's face it: this is all about blasting us with information in the few remaining places where we can't turn away. The ad companies want to keep strict control over these environments, which is why they won't let people surf the Internet on their screens, although technically it's possible.

So will elevators, cabs and restaurants turn into microcosms of cacophonous Times Square? Gannett's Captivate vows to keep its elevator broadcasts silent. But the firms ultimately have to satisfy advertisers and bow to financial pressures, so that could change. Many of the ads on Gottlieb's new taxicab network are silent, but an average of four ads every 10 minutes are not. So riders can be talking on their mobile phone and suddenly get interrupted by an airline pitchman. The touchscreen has a mute button, which riders should be prepared to press.

Perhaps our sense of control over advertisements was illusory to begin with, even in our living rooms. TiVo recently began testing pop-up ads that will appear when a viewer fast-forwards through a commercial. And a popular new kind of Internet ad floats over the article you're reading and appears to robustly resist efforts to close it down. Here's a scary thought: instead of protecting us from ads, new technology has given advertisers the weapons to hunt us down and ply us with their message where we least want it. You can't hide anywhere—not even in the cab as you flee town.

 

Brad Stone, Newsweek. May 2, 2005.

Copyright © 2005 Newsweek. All rights reserved.