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Style and Culture | NEW YORK, N.Y. / GERALDINE BAUM

Another reason not to get stuck on an elevator

October 14, 2002|GERALDINE BAUM

There is almost no sacred place left in the vertical city. The elevator commute to the office used to offer precious seconds of silence, a chance to reflect on your (black) shoes. Or flirt on the fly.

But not anymore.

Now, the ride up is another chance to be chased by a news crawl, a jumpy stock market, the weather and sports. Giving new meaning to "captive audience," a Massachusetts company is determined to implant tiny video screens in every upscale office building in Manhattan and beyond and provide relentless headlines and ads for the Hummer or Dunkin' Donuts. Mercifully, there is no sound. This "24-hour elevator media network" is particularly suited to New York, where the elevator has ruled since its invention here 150 years ago.

In a city of cubes -- offices like veal pens, apartments where space is rarely wasted on a curve -- the elevator was the one box where media had no sway. And while not every New Yorker has a car, everyone has an elevator. Just like the suburban car in the horizontal world, vertical-ites take theirs to get milk, to go to work, to get the kids to the park for soccer.

Before they showed up at office towers with big saws and little screens, the founders of the Captivate Network in Westford, Mass., studied workers in fancy skyscrapers and found that not only did they have high incomes but they also spent six minutes a day alone in an elevator. That's 30 minutes a week, 26 hours a year -- longer than some New York romances. Nature abhors a vacuum and so do marketers. So, they set out to capture people like Scott Strine, a project manager for Pfizer, who on a sunny afternoon last week took 12 elevator rides in three hours shuttling between Pfizer offices in midtown Manhattan. Strine is addicted to the little screen.

"I need it," he admitted. "Instead of looking at the ceiling or wondering if I'm annoying the guy next to me, I read the news." This is not a young man who craves quiet time, judging from the BlackBerry, cell phone, laptop and PalmPilot he carries on his person. "When I'm sleeping," he said, "I'm quiet."

The video screen is even eroding the act-as-if-you're-invisible elevator culture. In an East 42nd Street elevator recently, a headline flashed that the Mets had canned their controversial manager, Bobby Valentine. Irene Garson, on her way for a smoke on the sidewalk, screamed: "I can't believe it." Suddenly, everyone was sharing emotions. It was like an "Oprah" show--in a closet. "He's a no-good bum," a young guy in a Yankees hat offered up to Garson, 64, who erupted in a smoky laugh.

This is just the kind of blather that annoys Marc Schuman, 40, who works in a Park Avenue skyscraper with a Captivate screen in every elevator. It also annoys him that Americans get informed in oversimplified bits. ("Iraqi radar missile sites hit" or "FBI issuing 'graphic aid.' ") And it annoys him, on the ride back from a midday cup of coffee, to hit the up arrow and see the NASDAQ going down. "Do I need to know right away when the Dow drops 150 points?" asked Schuman, who works in financial services. "Maybe when I'm in the bathroom I have the opportunity to think about something else?"

Opportunity is the operative word here. Screens and advertising flags blanket the city. Not just in elevators but on every imaginable piece of real estate -- up and down the sides of buildings in Times Square, on small screens atop taxis, in supermarkets, banks and, yes, Mr. Schuman, in restaurant bathrooms. The old-fashioned lampposts that were installed recently around Manhattan's ultimate sanctuary, Central Park, have been sullied with banners that advertise airlines and street fairs.

But while the city is awash in news that fits into a sentence on an elevator monitor, most surveys show that people remain uninformed, particularly about world events. In a nation with attention deficit disorder, this is a city where one crawl is never enough. So, how do you captivate without alienating an already overstimulated population?

"I tell my editors, 'Give people the 'Oh, wow factor,' " said Mike DiFranza, the president of Captivate. Which accounts for the "word of the day" feature. Thursday it was "ineffable," defined as "indescribable" and illustrated thus: "The chef adored the ineffable aroma of the Italian truffle." DiFranza does not see this bite or his "power poll" questions -- Would you be more productive with a midday nap? -- as an intrusion into the john-sized space of an elevator. (According to e-mailed responses to the nap question, 76% said yes and 9% said they already nap at their desk.)

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