The Biz: The back-seat set gets its own mag

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New Yorkers have gotten accustomed to screens airing ads in elevators, airplanes and now even in taxicabs. But in London, the medium of choice for the back seat is a magazine.

Taxi Promotions UK and Chameleon Publishing together have launched Sherbet, a monthly lifestyle magazine distributed free in London cabs. They hope the magazine will become a prime medium for advertisers targeting the capital's business elite. The ultimate goal is to get riders to take it with them.

"Everyone wants to get hold of this prime audience, mainly [upscale] males who [hop] into cabs between three and four times a week," says Isha Bandara, editor of Sherbet, which draws its name from the London working-class slang for cab.

The goal is to drive circulation to the 200,000 mark in London (an estimated 10 magazines per cab per month), then expand to other U.K. cities such as Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Liverpool. And, if it makes it there, the thought is it can make it anywhere. So on to New York by December 2003.

Taxi Promotions and Chameleon are in talks with potential partners in the Big Apple, according to Asher Moses, managing director of Taxi Promotions, though he declined to name them. The Sherbet name would surely have to change, but Moses, a former cab driver, thinks the concept would work as well in New York's cabs as London's.

"We feel it has the mileage to establish itself in every major city worldwide," the 38-year-old Moses says.

If the taxi magazine does come to New York, it will have competition for reader attention and advertiser dollars from TV and interactive screens already popping up in NYC cabs. Under a one-year pilot program that began in September, the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission has allowed seven companies to place screens airing programming and ads in back seats. So far, they're in 31 cabs. (New York City has 12,187 taxis.) Six of those companies sell advertising. An executive with one company, Clear Channel Taxi Media, said it has sold ads to Visa and Madame Tussaud's. The cost of a 30-second ad ranges from $3,400 to $9,900 a week.

Matthew Daus, commissioner of the NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission, said he was unaware of Sherbet coming to New York and declined to say whether the TLC would give it the green light. "We always take a look at new ideas and evaluate their effectiveness," he said. "The commission hasn't in the past been a fan of allowing handouts and devices in the back of cabs. Our concern is public safety."

Sherbet will soon face similar competition in London, where a company named Cabvision is set to place 10-inch screens in cabs. Moses is undaunted, saying Cabvision and others "merely complement what we are doing." Sherbet's owners have little doubt that they not only have an upscale audience that hungers for news and features, but a captive one-literally. The average taxi ride lasts "between 15 and 20 minutes," according to Bandara,the 34-year-old editor.

Bandara felt so strongly about the potential of a taxi-distributed magazine that last year she left her job (she was assistant editor of Taxi Newspaper-a magazine for taxi drivers-for seven years) to spend six months researching the project. Opening circulation is 25,000 copies, with a core pool of 20,000 cabs on board. The focus is on cabs that serve busy railway stations during the morning rush hours.

One London-based media buyer, who hasn't seen the magazine yet, is impressed with the concept. "It's a perfect way of targeting business people effectively," says Clare Rush, head of magazines at WPP Group's Mediaedge:cia.

The 64-page launch issue contains ads that take up just less than a third of the magazine. Advertisers include Radisson SAS Hotels and Resorts, Reebok Sports Club and Spearmint Rhino Gentlemen's Clubs. Bandara says she capped the ad pages at 20, with a page rate of $3,750.

Editorially, the magazine features an eclectic mix of current affairs stories and lifestyle features-from the fate of non-EU immigrants in Italy to a cover story on Hollywood actress Salma Hayek to the relative merits of Matisse and Picasso. And just in case cab drivers begin to feel their opinions are no longer valued, Sherbet will run monthly interviews with them.

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