By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
You won't get a bonus chotchke if you buy a Value Meal at Peter Allen Abramson's Burger King franchise on lower Broadway. Instead, you'll get a PIN code and 20 minutes of free Web browsing or the chance to send video e-mail from one of the 20 Internet stations that line an entire wall of the cafeteria. Abramson opened the world's most high-tech Burger King (burgercam.com) in November '97 with a Bose sound system and a 27-monitor circular video column. After he installed his high-speed Internet terminals last August, Abramson saw a "dramatic" increase in sales and regular customers. So late last month, in an effort to trigger another spike in clientele, he mounted his Pentium II phalanx with 3Com Bigpicture cameras, debuting what he calls the "next generation" of video e-mail.
"I'm bringing technology that's more and more a part of our everyday lives. . . to many people who have never experienced it before," says Abramson. The tactic is drawing devoted patrons. A Century 21 employee named Louis, a regular at the digital age Burger King, doesn't use the Internet and has no interest in video mail, but still he chooses to sit at the terminals. "I have no time to use these things," he said, sweeping aside a mouse and keyboard to make room for his Value Meal. "I only get half an hour for lunch. But I'd rather sit here than at one of the tables. It's more exciting. It's good to just look at the screen." As he ate his Whopper, he peered into a stark blue desktop with an empty log-in display.
Louis's eerie monitor loyalty may have something to do with the increasing numbers of video and computer screens that are becoming permanent fixtures in Manhattan's public space. They're embedded in gym equipment and gas pumps. They're delivering infobytes and propaganda at deli registers, on billboards, in window displays, museum exhibits, and public kiosks. And that's just for now. Sooner or later, New Yorkers will see entire skyscrapers wrapped in monitor paneling.
MTV-generation haunts like Skechers and the Supreme skate shop attract customers with hypnotic displays of sexpots in platform shoes and low-fi footage of skate blunders. But they're not the only ones. The glass-encased lobby of the American Bible Society on Broadway and 61st showcases a 36-monitor video altar broadcasting dance interpretations of the scripture and gauzy footage of Third World missionary projects.
Venture a little further down Broadway and you might run across Eddie from COATS (Citizens Outraged at Animal Torture and Suffering) in his minivan with Faunavision, his jerry-rigged entertainment center, streaming footage of mangled animals. Or veer into the Avirex store just below Houston and encounter yourself on the two giant crime-deterrent surveillance monitors at the store's entrance. The gym, of course, will offer no reprieve. Crunch on Lafayette has more than 30 monitors including two dozen TVs and five Netpulse stationary bike terminals where you can check e-mail, surf the Net, and accrue frequent flyer miles for every minute of your workout.
Perhaps the newest and most controversial fleet to decorate Manhattan is the Next Generation Network (NGN): flat-screen LCD monitors that hang above your head at the local deli. Already 158 have been installed, and this month that number will quadruple, according to John DeSimone, general manager of the company's New York office.
NGN is the brainchild of Jerry Joyce, founder of Patrick Media, the world's largest outdoor advertising company. After selling that company, Joyce discovered his next big move while twiddling on line at a 7-Eleven. Why not feed customers advertising wrapped up in digestible news and sports headlines, weather updates, and entertainment tidbits while they languish in line, anxious to spend money?
Joyce struck a deal to install NGN monitors in the 5600 7-Eleven locations nationwide. The sales pitch is flawless: In exchange for housing the monitor, each vendor gets a percentage of the revenue it generates. NGN has contracted with the Korean-American Grocer's Organization (KAGRO) in Manhattan to be the exclusive monitor provider to its 800 member deli locations in Manhattan. Not all will be equipped, however, since advertisers are interested only in select demographics.
"What we want to do is broaden our base for distribution and advertisers," says DeSimone. "Do you want Hispanic? Do you want African American? You want yuppies? You want old? Tell me a segment of the population and I'll tell you how best to spend your money. That's what we're all about. Targeted marketing." Already NGN has clinched deals with other convenience stores, with gas stations, and with fast food chains like Blimpie and Jerry's Subs (plus a few test-runs at McDonald's). It's also in negotiations with two major drug chains, Loews movie theaters, and New Jersey Transit.
NGN tries to install most monitors in "position A," which in stores is "right by the register. Right by the Lotto readout. It's right where you have to pay the man. You can not miss it," says DeSimone. "Like I tell advertisers: 'I defy anybody to stand there and pay the man and not see that monitor.' " But he stresses that he doesn't see this as invasive to customers, especially because all the monitors are visuals-only, no sound: "As for the individuals being invaded upon, quite frankly, I haven't been faced with that. But if you meet anyone [who feels this way], get their addresses. I'll have them terminated."