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The Ads Are Watching
by Sam McMillan

Now the ads are watching you. And they are responding. It’s the ultimate dream of targeted advertising: A target of one; you, in other words. You, actively engaged with a brand, the better to receive marketing messages precisely tailored to who you are, what you look like, where you are and what you are doing, right down to the most intimate head nod and eye blink. If you think that sounds like science fiction or a paranoid’s conspiracy theory, you’d be only half-right.

In a future predicted by the 2002 film Minority Report (mostly remembered for its depiction of wall-sized, transparent, flat-screen computers controlled by a gestural interface), the character played by Tom Cruise walks through a crowded mall and is blasted with retinal scans, each one triggering a billboard displaying a message meant just for him. “You could use a Guinness about now,” an ad blares as he strides by. That movie was set in 2054. However, the technology and the ads that can be displayed are ready today. But are we ready for it? Should we be afraid?


Left: In Britain, a campaign for MINI by iris Worldwide is using software that enables custom-crafted billboard messages to display on the fly. Spotters, trained to recognize the cars at a distance, use iPads to take photos and post messages such as “Hello, blue MINI driver” and “Hey cream MINI, what’s your secret?” to billboards farther down the road.

Right: In Israel, Coca-Cola customizes billboards in a campaign designed by Tel Aviv-based Gefen Team. Participants enter their name into a cell phone app and interactive billboards around the country track the phone’s GPS data. When a user approaches a billboard, it tees up a message, displaying the person’s name. More than 100,000 people downloaded the app, making it number one in the Israeli iTunes app store, as of day one.

Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, a nonprofit public-interest research and consumer education group, is concerned. “Most people do not realize that as they shop, retailers are increasingly using a variety of tracking techniques ranging from digital signage with cameras to technology that tracks the movement of their mobile phones over time,” Dixon reports. Simply watching a video screen or interacting with a kiosk can mean you are being recorded and having your behavior, gender, age and ethnicity analyzed and used for marketing efforts.

Meanwhile, your smartphone knows whom you call, where you go, what topics you search for and even when you go to sleep. While the National Security Agency makes the front-page news for tracking our every mouse click and phone call, advertisers are quietly using this private data—often without the public’s consent or understanding—to sell us stuff. And it is all perfectly legal. As the New York Times recently reported in an article about smartphone data tracking, “Neither state nor federal law prohibits the collection or sharing of data by third parties.”

That’s one side of the story. The other is that of agencies making technological leaps to realize wildly creative ideas that have never been attempted before. A prime example is a new video running on YouTube produced by Mother New York for Virgin Mobile. An extension of the Virgin Mobile Retrain Your Brain campaign and its winking reference to subliminal advertising, Blinkwashing takes the idea a step further.


Left: In the United Kingdom, the Because I’m a Girl campaign for global children’s charity Plan UK uses facial recognition to highlight the condition of 75 million girls whose choices are limited by their gender. Interactive bus shelter posters, equipped with high-definition cameras and facial-recognition software, detect a viewer’s gender and display relevant content. Shoppers and passersby can opt in by touching the screen to view a 40-second video explaining the plight of the girls Plan UK is trying to help.

Right: The ANAR Foundation (Aid to Children and Adolescents at Risk) in Spain wanted to send a special message to abused children without alerting their abusers, even if they’re walking together. Ad agency Grey Spain created a bus shelter ad with lenticular printing so the poster displays different messages depending on the angle (or height) of the viewer. Adults—or anyone taller than 4' 5"—see a generic anti-abuse message and an image of a sad boy, while children see bruises on the boy’s face and a different message: “If somebody hurts you, phone us and we’ll help you,” alongside the foundation’s helpline phone number.

The concept is simple, but fiendishly difficult in its execution. Viewers go to a YouTube Virgin Mobile page and are instructed to turn on their webcam, look into the camera while a detection engine calibrates their eyes and then sit back and watch the video unfold. Every time the viewer blinks, the ad skips randomly to a new snippet of video, while the copy continues uninterrupted. In all, 25 separate videos were shot, each filmed in one perfect take. According to Rob Baird, creative director at Mother New York, each and every word in the video was time coded to ensure a seamless message. While the spoken content of the ad sounds just like a hard-hitting direct-mail piece, the videos are riotously funny and play like a bad dream, a surrealist art project or one of the Coen brother’s darker comedies. There’s nothing quite like watching a suburban housewife furiously shoveling a backyard grave and shouting out the advantages of a Virgin Mobile cell phone plan while a body wrapped in a tarp lies trussed on the lawn behind her.

At rehabstudios, the production company that delivered the behind-the-scenes enabling technology, creative partner Tim Rodgers says, “First we had to ask ourselves, is this even possible?” The team looked at open-source code on the Internet designed for non-standard input then began hacking together a prototype to check timing, calibration and responsiveness. Programmed in Flash, the project presented a huge technical challenge to get the videos to play seamlessly. 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