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E-billboards are watching you

Pras Subramanian

The alphabet game. Everyone knows and plays it on long road trips with the family. You watch out for signs and billboards, and spell out the alphabet based the signs you see. Now just imagine - what if the billboards were watching you instead?

This isn’t just science fiction. In a reality that could be lifted straight from the film “Minority Report,” advertisers are now able to scan your face, and serve you personalized ads - in real time. UK-based billboard company Ocean Outdoor is doing just that, rolling out a system next month at Birmingham, England's Network Rail train station that will serve people ads based on personal characteristics.

Courtesy: 20th Century Fox

Here’s how it works: cameras located around the train station capture images of people’s faces in the station. The images are transmitted back to computers which analyze them and cull information age and gender. Based on those metrics, computers tell giant billboards located near the people scanned which ads to play.

Crucially, for privacy advocates at least, Ocean Outdoor says personally identifiable information isn’t captured or stored. Users opt-in to receive personalized ads via billboards, or their mobile devices, by using free wifi provided by Ocean Outdoor.

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Despite the assurances, Yahoo Finance Tech columnist Aaron Pressman isn’t totally sold. “It’s definitely creepy,” he says in the attached video. “The wifi piece is a little more concerning,” he notes, because “that’s where they start to identify you uniquely by your phone.”

For advertisers in this brand new space, it’s really a game of incrementalism. “Once we’re all used to this type of advertising, then I’m sure they’re going to get into more data collecting,” Pressman says, because for brands the holy grail is being able to determine what portion of thir ads are actually effective (the industry joke being half of ad impressions aren’t, and no one knows which half).

Clearly the importance, and therefore resources to spend, is there for advertisers. “The idea is to link back and connect what people do with their shopping behavior with what ads they saw,” Pressman says. “Making those big links is a goal of advertising.”

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