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The Ads Are Watching
by Sam McMillan

Baird says the Blinkwashing spot was proposed to Virgin without any guarantees that it would actually work. “Eye detection to advance video had never been done before,” he says. Early metrics from YouTube indicate average viewing time is a minute and 50 seconds. That’s a lifetime on the Internet. Or as Rodgers at rehabstudios says, “People are blinking.”

Once upon a time, conspiracy theorists could be dismissed as Dan Brown fanatics, people who looked for hidden meanings imprinted on the back of dollar bills, and were certain they were being recorded. The question is no longer whether we’re being recorded, but whether this is a creative accomplishment or a dangerously intrusive act. If you are on Facebook, your life is an open book. Every Gmail message you send is scoured by Google, the better to sell you stuff. As Rodgers says, “If you are using Gmail, that’s scarier than using a webcam to detect your eye blinks.”


Left: In malls in India and Pakistan, Coca-Cola drinkers can link hands across a contentious border through specially made vending machines. The campaign, executed by Australian agency Leo Burnett Sydney, uses touchscreen displays to present each participant with a simple task, such as a drawing a peace symbol. Completing the task rewards each person with a free Coke, and symbolically unites the two feuding countries.

Right: In 450 gas stations across the United Kingdom, TESCO, the third largest retailer in the world, will install facial-recognition screens that can distinguish a person’s gender and one of three age groups to which they might belong. When gas pumpers enter the TESCO store to pay, they are presented with advertisements targeted specifically to their demographic. While heralding the potential to revolutionize the face of retail, TESCO promises that “no data or images are collected or stored and the system does not use eyeball scanners and can’t identify individuals.” TESCO anticipates the screens will reach five million customers weekly, and plans to expand the technology into as many super-markets as possible.

Jed Grossman, art director at Mother on the Blinkwashing project, doesn’t believe the ad is intrusive. “We’re not recording or capturing anything but metadata. Viewers are willingly engaging with a brand on its YouTube page. But as technology is combined with advertising we have to be careful not to blur the line between entertainment and capturing personal data.”

Back in 1999, Scott McNeally, then CEO of Sun Microsystems, famously told reporters and analysts gathered for a product launch, “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.” At the time, his remark caused quite a stir. “Millions of American consumers tell us that privacy is a grave concern to them when they are thinking about shopping online,” countered the director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the Federal Trade Commission. That was long before a billion people signed on to Facebook, and most likely skimmed over its data use policy, which explicitly states: “We do not share any of your information with advertisers (unless, of course, you give us permission).…We use the information we receive, including the information you provide at registration or add to your account or timeline, to deliver ads and to make them more relevant to you. This includes all of the things you share and do on Facebook, such as the Pages you like or key words from your stories, and the things we infer from your use of Facebook.” In case you missed it, that’s “All the things you do and share” on Facebook. Which, for most people, is quite a lot.

How invasive are marketers’ activities? Consider that retail giant Target tracks shopper data so thoroughly it can tell when a teenage girl is pregnant—before her parents can. As reported in the New York Times, an outraged shopper in Minneapolis buttonholed a manager to ask why Target was sending his high school-aged daughter coupons for baby clothes and cribs. When the manager called back to apologize, the man had his own apology to make. “I had a talk with my daughter,” he said. “It turns out there’s been some activities in my house I haven’t been completely aware of. She’s due in August.”

As poet Delmore Schwartz once said, “Even paranoids have real enemies.” But consumers are nothing if not pragmatic. In exchange for free content and a 50% off Groupon, they are willing to give away their location, their search and surfing habits, their birthday and photos of loved ones. Such a deal. ca McMillan
Sam McMillan is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer, teacher and producer of interactive multimedia projects for a number of Bay Area production houses, and can be reached at