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.
Since 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
Updated June 24, 2016 and originally published October 2, 2009.