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An advertising concept takes viewers for a ride

Vancouver-based Play Taxi Media has 1,000 screens displayed in the back seats of taxis in three major cities.

Play Taxi Media

It's known as "dwell time" – the number of seconds or minutes you engage with a digital ad or website, and for advertisers it's far more valuable than just a click.

And the stretch of time (15 minutes on average) that people spend in the back of a taxi is a perfect incubator for dwell time. Passengers are a captive audience, making them valuable to marketers.

Companies are quickly tapping into this time and space, finding yet another public place to deliver advertising to consumers. In New York, it's known as Taxi TV. And now back-of-the-cab video screens, providing a distraction with a mix of oddly absorbing basketball-dunking videos and ads, are spreading across Canada.

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Vancouver-based Play Taxi Media has 1,000 screens displayed in the back seats of taxis in three major cities, and it's just getting started. The number of screens in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto will increase by 40 per cent by the end of summer, and will reach 3,000 by year's end, the four-year-old company said.

Play Taxi has signed agreements with taxi companies covering a total of 4,000 out of the estimated 6,500 cabs on the road in those three cities. Play Taxi, which started with 25 screens in Vancouver in 2008, is looking to move into other cities, such as Montreal.

"We've really started to open up to national advertising now," said Steve Lowry, co-founder and chief financial officer. "Having a critical mass is so important."

Play Taxi is involved with just a fraction of the total number of taxis operating in Canada, but as advertisers realize the untapped real estate in the back seats, the video-screen ad market is likely to grow.

Play Taxi is investing heavily in expansion, which hinges on how quickly it can install screens. Its business model involves finding partners who provide free content for the video touch screens in exchange for eyeballs. The partners include the Weather Network, CBC and video provider WatchMojo.

The video screen's display runs in 15-minute cycles, with paying advertisers filling about one-third of the time. Play Taxi has started attracting some big advertisers: Its first major national deal was with Telus Corp., which launched a three-month campaign across the entire network in January

Play Taxi's screens include an off button, but according to the company, only 3 to 5 per cent of riders use it.

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"What we strive to do is not take the rider hostage," said Christina Williams, Play Taxi's national director of sales and marketing. "We don't want them to feel subjected to ads they don't want to see."

The touch screens also allow for interactive advertising.

For example, travel service Flight Centre ran a campaign from October to March in the form of a game that challenged riders to match pictures from around the world with the countries where they were taken. If they got five right, they could enter a contest for a free trip. The campaign resulted in Flight Centre gathering about 7,000 e-mail addresses of potential customers.

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