The People in the Elevator

Photo: Danny Kim/New York Magazine

Not long ago, I arrived back at my desk from lunch to a blinking Gchat message. “Did you hear about the Gossip Girl stylist who got her arm chopped off?” a friend was asking. In fact, I had heard that. But from where? And then I remembered: I’d heard it from … the elevator.

“People always say that: ‘I heard it from the elevator!’ ” exclaims Kate Scanlan, a Tina Fey ringer and one of the four Captivate Network editors whose quippy summaries of news stories and lifestyle tips appear daily in more than 800 office buildings nationwide (252 of which are in New York). “We’re like, ‘That’s us!’ ” says Scanlan. “We’re the ones in there!”

Well, not actually. Captivate’s offices are located in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, which is a world removed from the young professionals who make up its target audience. “As you might notice, we are not in a highly metropolitan area,” says research director Scott Marden, gesturing to the woods outside Captivate’s complex. “But I encourage everyone when they are writing to put a metropolitan hat on and be cool, and be hip, and be modern.”

“I always feel like Jacqui is our viewer,” says Scanlan, nodding at managing editor Jacqui Trotta, a blonde newlywed who commutes 45 minutes from Boston each day.

“I’m pretty close,” agrees Trotta, who ticks through the characteristics Marden’s polling has found in the Captivate audience. “A lot of them are just starting out their lives—not their lives lives but their grown-up lives. Their health is important to them, they like to dress up and be stylish. But they’re starting to settle down.”

“They don’t necessarily have what I have, which is two cats,” says Scanlan.

The nearly 1,400 items that flash on Captivate’s screens each day—founder Mike DiFranza calls them “content snacks”—cover an array of subjects, but the bulk are news briefs written in a distinctive voice. “It’s sort of a friendly, approachable tone,” says Amber Plante, a mother of two in Janeane Garofalo glasses whose item about a robbery at Jeopardy host Alex Trebek’s house stands as a Captivate classic. (Headline: “What Is His Underwear?” Body: “Alex Trebek was caught wearing this when a thief surprised him.”) Captivate’s blurbs also reveal an eye for the memorable detail, such as those found in a story about a man buried by a pile of beans. “Pinto beans, actually,” says Scanlan.

Earlier that morning, the group had sorted through the material that would make it onto that day’s screens. The one about traffic cops dressing up as leprechauns in Las Vegas? Yes. “How about, ‘Green Means Stop’?” suggests Plante. The story about a woman crushed in an elevator? Definitely not.

The first Captivate screen was installed in 1998. DiFranza, a venture capitalist, got the idea after a red-eye flight from California. Loopy and exhausted, he observed his fellow elevator passengers agitating as the car crawled up the high-rise. “It was almost entertaining to see how hard people worked not to make eye contact with each other,” he says. “Having a screen was almost a relief.” With an audience that was, literally, captive, ad sales came easily, and the company was bought by Gannett in 2004.

People may not want to interact in the elevator, but they seem to like interacting with the elevator. Last year, Captivate held a contest asking people to send in photos from their vacations, which went so well that this year, they held another one: View From My Office. “This is my favorite,” says Plante, pointing to a photo of an office window on which someone had drawn an outline of a dragon breathing fire on the buildings outside. A man even contacted Captivate about proposing to his girlfriend via one of its screens. He later backed out, but “that he even thought of us was very flattering,” says Scanlon. “It’s like, ‘Aw, yes! The elevator is your friend.’”

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The People in the Elevator