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The Touchmedia Tax

Shanghai: TouchMedia panel

If you’ve taken a taxi in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangdong or Shenzhen there’s a fair chance you’ve come across a Touchmedia touch screen display that sits behind the front passenger seat. It’s rare to find a form of advertising that incenses quite as much as this – and its worth exploring why .

The display runs an initial video ad + sound that cannot be interrupted when the ride starts before landing in an home screen that cycles through a mixture of mostly advertising with some other lite content thrown in. A row of soft/keys on the side allow you to browse other content and there are interactive elements such as a virtual keyboard. The screen is directly in front of where most adult passenger would sit, and as with the headrest that houses the display – it is exactly at at eye-level.

Touchmedia’s website bills the benefits of the touch screen for passenger “that have little else to do but sit back and be entertained or informed” which is wishful thinking in cities where mobile penetration is running close to 100% – with a few minutes to spare the first thing people turn to in the taxi is their phone. And whilst Touchmedia may have successes (this Forbes article details some) they come with significant costs. Touchmedia’s genius is in selling directly to taxi fleets and externalising these costs to two captive audiences – taxi drivers and passengers.

What is it like to be a taxi driver in a Touchmedia equipped taxi? Imagine sitting in a car for an entire shift – where you have no control over what is played on the radio or the volume at which it is played. Of the taxi drivers interviewed for this research feedback ranged from passivity to intense annoyance.

  • “its full of ads, no one wants to be forced to watch it.” and passengers “think it is annoying. They tried so hard to turn it off.”
  • I don’t mind it, but the passengers complain it is disturbing. Nobody is interested in it, but kids.”
  • “They feel it is so annoying. How could it be this freaking annoying?! They want to turn it off so bad, but very few of them know how to.”
  • “They just want the music down, since they give up on turning it off. ”

This article on China Daily includes a few choice quotes – and its worth reading the full article which is more balanced than the snippets that you’re getting here:

  • “According to a survey carried out in Beijing by Chinese Venture, some taxi companies forced their drivers to install a screen in their vehicles, requiring the drivers themselves to fork over a deposit of between 800 to 1,000 yuan to ensure the safety of the screen which cost Touchmedia 2,000 to 3,000 yuan each.
  • “To add to the drivers’ resentment, the extra screen consumes a lot of electricity, which could dramatically shorten the life span of the car’s battery. The magazine said 90 percent of taxi drivers chose to shut off the screen to save electricity as a result.” One driver interviewed for this piece reported being offered a spare battery to offset the wear and tear – and if this is applied across taxi fleets this will make a decent dent into its profitability.

And how is the experience for passengers? The interface and interaction model is well designed to serve up highly invasive (many would argue highly annoying) advertising: the start-up advertisement which, remember is directly in front of the line-of sight of an adult passenger – includes video and audio cannot be switched off; there is a sleep button but it is hidden in a sequence that requires pressing the ‘increase volume button’ a number of times (which is cognitively against the norm of carrying out a decreasing action before putting a device to sleep), and then pressing half a button – failure to complete the sequence, or press one to many times have fat fingers or gloves and the display stays on; and should you finally manage to switch it off a small action like a baby’s flailing arms or a shopping bag brushing the screen will wake the display and trigger the start-up again. The earlier version didn’t have an off-switch. A well informed interaction designer understand these issues – in the design industry they are widely considered the equivalent of dark arts – applying good design techniques into something that doesn’t benefit the user – in this instance the passenger. The current interaction model insures that the display a tax on the attention span of every passenger – and not only that its one for which they get to pay for the privilege.

But many metros and busses have screens pumping out news, entertainment and advertising so what’s the difference between that and riding in a Touchmedia equipped taxi? When you step into a taxi you’re buying more than a ride from A to B – you’re buying the rights to control a semi-private space for the duration of that ride – one that comes with the promise of comfort, shelter from the elements, and a barrier between you whatever lies out there. The Touchmedia display breaks that service promise – and consequently for most passengers devalues the taxi riding experience.

Being first in your market is always going to be disruptive. Could the pain of those that complain be a knee-jerk reaction to change? Generational? Underlining their lack of visual/media literacy? Kevin Kelly’s succinct article on screen literacy in the New York Times is a good reminder of the broader trajectories at play – that norms change. Displays will proliferate doncha’ know and along with it our expectations for what is or isn’t acceptable in public, and semi-public/private and private spaces. Or is there something fundamental at play? A line beyond which as consumers, passengers, citizens, humans we’re not willing to cross – or at least not without being compensated?

I’m interested to know how sustainable Touchmedia’s taxi business model is if they were to reduce the invasiveness of their advertising and put the passenger (and/or driver) in greater control of the experience. Would their numbers still add up? I’m sure Touchmedia has a lovely deck explaining their high recall rates, and high levels of interaction and undoubtedly has some success stories. But I’m not so convinced their data will filter out interactions that are driven by the desire to switch off the advertising. And I’d love to see an independent study on brand sentiment for brands that do advertise there. Does an intense hatred for the medium, translate into an intense hatred for the brand?

The future of advertising is full of interesting opportunities.

But as it stands this offering by Touchmedia isn’t it.

Nowhere close.


How will the taxi driving experience evolve in our future perfect? What happens when would-be passengers know in advance the quality and service of the taxi they are about to hail? Whilst a premium service – Uber does a brilliant job innovating in a way that benefits the both driver and their passenger, we’re not far from all being able to pull on driver/cab/passenger reviews in real-time or near-time. Sometimes this information won’t make a jot of difference – on a rainy friday night, but many times it will inform purchase decisions including whether to step into a Touchmedia equipped taxi. Which then will force Touchmedia to offer a clear benefit to more of its stakeholders, or die not trying.


Complaints about your Shanghai Taxi ride? The numbers to call.

Touchmedia on LinkedIn, and their advisory board. I also covered Touchmedia in my column at the Economic Observer (Chinese only).

With thanks to Francesca Wang for the background research, the interviewees in this article, and Jenn Wong for the review.