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Advertisements That Customize Themselves by Scanning You

2010 July 15

Daily Nation reports that billboards in Japan are being fitted with cameras that can scan the gender and age of people looking at them.

Details are sparse, but this quote gives a little information:

“The camera can distinguish a person’s sex and approximate age, even if the person only walks by in front of the display, at least if he or she looks at the screen for a second,” said a spokesman for the project.

If data for different locations is analysed, companies can provide interactive advertisements “which meet the interest of people who use the station at a certain time,” the project said in a statement.

That makes it seem like the plan is to collect demographics data from the billboard, split that information by time, and then change the digital display on the billboard by time of day.  This is a clever approach to getting better outcomes from billboards, but there are some privacy concerns here.  While the company assures that only the demographic data is collected (photos are not retained), there is no way for passer-by to know this definitively.

The Daily Nation article draws parallels to Minority Report, in which advertisements were presented that customized their content and purchasing suggestions to each individual nearby, but that’s a bit far-fetched.  First, that doesn’t seem like the goal of the advertisement company here and second, that technology is currently not feasible, although it likely will be somewhere in the mysterious future.

I bring this up because I just was denied permission to conduct a video-based job analysis of an organization that I am working with.  The idea was to collect video-based critical incidents of customer service encounters and use them to develop a training program.  The videos would not be seen by administration and would not be used for administrative purposes (i.e. raises, promotions, firings, etc).  Even so, the organization felt that this was an invasion of employee privacy and would ultimately create more problems than it would solve.

Clearly, the balance between privacy and technology-enhanced data collection is becoming increasingly tricky, and there are several concerns moving forward.  What will employee/consumer reactions to this violation of privacy be?  Will there be attitude or behavioral changes?  Would real-time” advertisements be considered the same or worse than this kind of targeted advertisements?  Will there be cohort effects, i.e. will people born with such advertisements even give such advertisements a second thought?  As long as consumers get the products that will benefit them the most, will they even both to ask questions about why it’s being offered to them?

So here’s looking toward a bright and glorious future.  Just don’t eat the soylent green, however compelling the ads might be.

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