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Facial Recognition and Billboards

This article was written by in Consumer, Privacy and Security. 3 comments.


I have a fascinated/disgusted relationship with targeted advertisements. On one hand, I’ve seen enough Playtex commercials in my lifetime that I could probably draw you their logo from memory, and I’ve never been in the position to decide, “should I buy the Playtex version, or a different brand?” All those ads in my face have been a complete waste of my time, and the advertiser’s dollars. So, I think it would be really neat if I only saw advertisements that would interest me.

On the other hand, even though I’m blessed with A.D.D. and therefore daydream my way through most ads, I’ve read enough studies about how ads work, and I know that in some cases I’m more likely to buy a brand I’ve heard of. In other cases, a simple Google search will suffice, and the recommendation from people I trust is worth more than a hundred well-produced ads.

Privacy LatchSince the seminal work on the subject—Minority Report—came out in theaters, I’ve been waiting to see just how close we’ll get to individually-targeted ads. And this morning I see that Germany is beginning to place video cameras inside of street-level billboards, designed to recognize people’s emotional reaction to specific ads. If the advertisers sees that more people are smiling, or at least interested, than sneering, they’ll feel encouraged to keep the ad going.

Granted, this is quite far from a commercial that speaks to you or knows your habits, as in “Hey, Bill Braskey, it’s been 8 days since your last vanilla latté. Don’t you think you deserve one?” And I’m thankful for that. At present, I don’t feel like an advertisement that judges my emotional state is an invasion of privacy, but if they start to recognize my identity, I certainly will.

We do, however, already see ads based on our habits. Google and its advertising partners have the ability to show you ads that other visitors won’t see, because your Internet browsing habits are not exactly private. They call it “interest-based advertising”, and because Google is Google, they were very open and up-front about it, and have provided permanent methods for anybody to opt-out of the program.

Billboards shouting out your name aren’t a reality yet for a couple important reasons: 1) recognizing an individual face isn’t foolproof yet, and 2) advertisers don’t have access to a database of, say, driver’s license photos. Although, there may be a way around that last requirement, if Facebook starts selling access to names tagged in photos. In any event, you can rest assured that we’ll keep on top of this for you and help you protect your brain.

Big Brother is watching you shop, Michael Fitzpatrick, BBC News, Oct. 2, 2009

Photo credit: rpongsaj

Published or updated October 2, 2009. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Smithee formerly lived primarily on credit cards and the good will of his friends. He is a newbie to personal finance but quickly learning from his past mistakes. You can follow him on Twitter, where his user name is @SmitheeConsumer. View all articles by .

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Jesse

Minority Report was one of the best movies in the future meets reality genre ( I just made that up I think) and it’s really interesting to see many of the futuristic ideas in the movie coming into plain sight in our present day. Augmented reality is here and voice/face recognition software is getting better and better. I don’t think face recognition ads that speak directly to a person are far off.

I like Germany’s take on this with emotion recognition cameras but I would sure hate to be the guy scrolling through all the tape to see what people’s reactions were to my ad.

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avatar Kyle

I agree on the targeted ads. I would much rather see someone pitch me something I may actually want as opposed to a Sham Wow or a Slanket (see I said Slanket Matt). I would probably break the billboard though if it said “Hello Kyle how would you like a new computer today I seem to remember yours is on the fritz.”

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,505 (Platinum)

Whenever I see a television advertisement for a product that is so far away from the realm of what I might actually buy, I think about all the money that was spent by the company in their marketing efforts to study the demographics. I usually end up thinking they’re right and I’m wrong; I must be watching a television show that is not nearly suited for my demographic.

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