Outdoor ads that can count faces are useful for advertisers, terrifying for everyone else

By James Robinson , written on March 26, 2014

From The News Desk

There’s no genre of advertising at more of a disadvantage than outdoor ("out of home") ads.

Online advertisers know how many people saw an ad, how many clicked, when they engaged, what they were browsing for and what they’re interested in. In comparison, outdoor ads are stuck in the past: costing exorbitant amounts to put a billboard on the side of the freeway or at a bus stop and then hoping people notice it.

Not that outdoor advertising is dead. Even if growth is stagnant, it was still a $6.9 billion industry in 2013. We still use our eyes to look at the world and, until that action is replaced by an app, people are going to keep putting ads into stadiums, airports, taxis, shopping malls, movie theaters and bus stops.

Miami's AdMobilize doesn't want to kill out-of-home advertising, rather it wants to optimize it. The company was founded in 2012 and has created a piece of technology it calls the AdBeacon, a small camera in a box that can be attached to an ad and which takes a photo every two seconds. The photos are fed back into a server where software tracks the gazes of passersby. The company offers these campaigns on a “pay-per-face” basis, exporting the sort of cost-per-click or cost-per-sale economics that have become dominant online into a real world environment.

“A client comes to us and says I want to buy three months of ad space in bus shelters on a busy street in Miami. We can tell them how many people were exposed to their ads with 85 percent accuracy. There’s no real intelligence out there about that right now, otherwise. We’re taking the mystery out of outdoor advertising, which is exciting because its such a big market, the potential is huge,” says CEO Rodolofo Saccoman.

The company can go one better than even that and send its street team out to crowded spots - Saccoman uses the example of a Miami Heat game - turning them into walking billboards with iPads strapped into backpacks, monitoring how many people see an ad and where they see it.

The problem here, as I put to Saccoman, is that most people would be terrified by the idea of ads secretly taking photos of their faces, even just for counting. Between the pervasive eyes of CCTV, the lurking phenomenon of Google Glass, emerging facial recognition technology and stores reaching out with bluetooth beacons to communicate with our smartphones unknowingly, the distance between real physical lives and digital existences is shrinking. It’s hard to be excited about another source of surveillance that could possibly be corrupted and used against us.

“Some people are absolutely against us,” Saccoman says. “Some people are like, who cares? For us it’s a little bit of wait and see.”

Saccoman says that it is the company’s driving preoccupation to make sure the pictures its advertisements take only end up in its own system and used only for counting faces. The company is experimenting with how long they hold onto images for and how quickly it can delete them.

There’s two huge thorns in this approach, Saccoman acknowledges. There’s a growing sensitivity around what control someone has over being tracked and photographed in public. Google Glass’ unpopular and divisive launch is evidence of this concern, he says. He has no response when asked about how AdMobilize would respond to a subpoena from law enforcement. “I don’t want to go down that route ever,” he says. But if AdMobilize’s AdBeacon technology takes off, it will create its own very tempting surveillance goldmine.

Which is scary, because AdBeacon technology makes powerful business sense. Some guise of this has to take off. There are almost 18,000 cinemas in America, 30,000 shopping malls, 50,000 bus shelters and 68,000 taxis.

“The US alone is a gigantic market. But you take this kind of intelligence to countries with low mobile adoption, where outdoor advertising is the way to go and it’s much bigger still,” Saccoman says.

“There’s Facebook for social advertising, there’s Nielsen for TV. Similarly, we think we can completely dominate this portion of the market.”

Facial counting wasn’t even a thought when Saccoman started AdMobilize, but the company has embraced the possibility quickly. Its early clients are Invisalign, Norwegian Cruise Lines and Deliver Lean, not exactly A-listers, but as education grows about its technology, so will demand. The rate of change in this technology and the possible uses it has point at a wild ride ahead, even if AdMobilize ends up only opening the door for a bigger company to perfect the technology.

With or without AdMobilize, we’re going to have to prepare ourselves for outdoor ads getting smarter. If you’re still getting used to marketers knowing what you looked at online, it’s going to be a tough pill to swallow when they know what you’ve spotted on the street, too.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]