Devotees of this space will recall that I wrote about the use of facial recognition technology in advertising about two years ago, when NEC thought it had perfected the idea. Now comes word of a new advertising campaign in London where an "intelligent" bus stop billboard only displays its content to women. Apparently, the billboard has a camera that scans bypassers -- and if one stops to look, it determines their gender and shows them a 40-second video if they are female. Males only get a link to the advertiser’s website. The advertiser, a nonprofit organization trying to raise money for the education of girls in third-world countries, says it purposely doesn’t show the ad to men to give them “a glimpse of what it’s like to have basic choices taken away.”
I’m not sure anyone would feel that NOT seeing an ad is somehow a violation of their "basic choices." On the contrary, they would probably be thrilled to be on the don't-get-to-see list. Now if the advertiser were really smart, at the end of the video it would, with a wink, tell the audience to spread the word that the video featured a slow striptease by, say, Brooklyn Decker. That would ignite angry charges of gender bias in advertising and cause a riot of demand that men be "treated equally." And long lines of men would wait at bus stops to peer over the shoulder of a woman granted access to the video.
Since the era of global terrorism has put a surveillance camera on just about every rooftop and light pole in the world, it would be kinda pointless to argue that being screened for your gender by a camera on a bus stop has privacy implications, but you can bet somebody will bring it up. Probably the one who was staggering down the street after a five-martini lunch at a nearby cafe with the Brazilian bodybuilder "client," who the husband has been led to believe is a harmless old queen from Vauxhall.
On the one hand, it is pretty cool when MI-5 (best import from the BBC until Downton) is tracking a bad guy. They can magically access camera feeds from nearly anywhere, so that they know where to send Lucas and Beth. But if, in the middle of a serene nose pick, bra adjustment or crotch scratch, you pause to realize that either/or is now on a hard drive somewhere waiting to be discovered -- and, who knows, in the U.K., sold to the neared Murdoch-owned newspaper -- suddenly the idea of 24/7 camera coverage seems, well, less cool.
Now on top of that, you find out that it wasn't a police security camera that gave you up, but a camera there solely for the task of deciding to serve you a video advertisement or not -- and suddenly the issue of privacy looms very large. You can somehow rationalize away the security-related violations -- as you do now, knowing that TSA body scanners are stripping you bare each pass-through -- but having your face scanned for the greater glory of consumption seems somewhat over the line.
But is it any worse than store cameras that study your every move down the aisle to see what induces you to reach here instead of there? You think the cameras are just there to catch shoplifters. It is one thing when you are enlisted to have your eyeballs scanned as they read a page or watch a screen. It is something altogether discomforting to know that you are being secretly watched in order to sell you more laundry detergent.
It is often said about the advance of technology, "Just because you can do it, doesn't mean you should do it." I think marketers need to take this sentiment seriously -- because if they don't, legislators will.