Going up? This elevator ride brought to you by...

In today's workaday world, time to collect one's thoughts is at a premium - a few moments snatched while standing at the gas pump or riding in an elevator.

But realizing they have a captive audience for those brief seconds, advertisers are rushing to fill the silence.

Studies show that Americans see as many as 3,000 advertising messages a day, but that number is about to rise even further. A new generation of "ambient advertisers" is using parking meters, ATMs, portable toilets, supermarkets, airport luggage carousels, and even beach sand to promote products.

One of the hottest battlegrounds for ambient ads is the nation's elevators, especially those in high-tech office buildings brimming with the kind of demographics marketers worship.

Get ready to ride with ENN - the Elevator News Network - a Toronto-based company that runs ads on elevator video screens delivering the latest news, weather, sports, and stock quotes in Canadian high-rises.

Captivate Network Inc., an ENN competitor, has rolled out a similar service in 30 financial-district buildings in Boston, Chicago, and New York. The company just inked an agreement to place its monitors in 120 office buildings owned by Equity Office Properties Trust in San Francisco, Denver, Los Angeles, and Seattle.

Captivate research estimates that vertical commuters ride an elevator for an average of 45 seconds per trip, roughly six times a day. With 5,000 to 7,000 employees taking several trips a day, that adds up to a lot of ads.

But does plying the last spare moments of people's lives with ads risk a backlash? "That depends on whether it's the right message for the medium," says Bob Kelly, president of Kelly Michener Advertising in Lancaster, Pa.

"A video screen on an elevator could interrupt mind flow," he said, "but sometimes people don't mind being interrupted."

"If you were riding a hotel elevator and the message is, 'Visit our new health club,' that's probably not going to be offensive," says Mr. Kelly. "The key question is: 'Is the ad intrusive?' "

That's a concern rarely raised these days by the crop of outdoor ad agencies employing "guerrilla tactics" to be heard above the noise, say some industry watchers.

To reach consumers, one such company sculpted 5,000 Skippy Peanut Butter logos into the sand at New Jersey beaches last summer. Pump Radio Network, which pipes 20-second ad spots through speakers at Michigan gas stations, plans to nationally market franchises of its "broadcast" later this year.

"In too many instances, the outdoor-advertising industry is guilty of excess, especially the younger, smaller companies," says a senior ad executive who asked not to be identified. "Outdoor agencies tend to slap a message onto anything, anywhere ... and don't care that much about the consequences."

Like their ads, companies that practice unorthodox branding are multiplying. In January, for the first time, the Outdoor Advertising Association of America formed a new membership council for alternative media.

For some public-interest groups, the growing ad cacophony isn't as worrisome as the potential for deception such ad saturation brings.

"If an ATM owner is getting paid for the number of customers exposed to ads on the ATM, how would you ever know if they were slowing down your transaction in order to get a few extra ad dollars?" asks Gene Kimmelman, co-director of the Washington office of Consumers Union.

Captive customers were also on the minds of consumer advocates who complained about test ads AT&T ran late last year. The ads caused delays for some calls by playing a 15-second sales pitch after a phone number was dialed, urging customers to sign-up for a new calling plan.

"If they know that's what's happening, consumers will rebel," says Mr. Kimmelman.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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