Private (Advertising) Eyes, They’re Watching You


If you’ve ever felt openly judged for how you look, what you wear, where you shop, or what you buy, the Birmingham New Street railway station is not the place for you. Three enormous eye shaped advertising display panels are being installed above each entrance of the newly redeveloped train station. Composed of over 1,000 full color LED modules, each screen spans up to 98 feet in length and 23 feet in height. While it may look impressive, what really blows my mind are the facial-recognition cameras that scan the area in front of each entrance. The cameras are intended to customize the screen advertisements to appeal to the demographics of the surrounding crowd.

It sounds straight out of a dystopian novel. Many have likened it to Orwell’s 1984 or the movie Minority Report. Hall & Oats were ahead of their time as they threatened to watch you with their Private Eyes. I don’t know the details of exactly how it scans the crowd, or what demographics it seeks, but the concept has a lot of far reaching implications for society as well as market research.

First: Is it ethical to target and stereotype in this way?

What I do know is we already have targeted ads. We see ads on the websites we visit that are tailored per the terms we searched, the websites we visited, and our social media profiles. If you use some apps, you receive push notifications when you pass certain stores. This isn’t much different, though the focus on one’s demographics is what makes it feel more intrusive. We also haven’t consented to the camera’s terms and conditions. It reminds me of the South Park HumancentiPad episode. I’ll leave it to you to check that out and make the connection.


Second: When the recognition cameras broaden their scope and improve their scanning abilities, where do we draw the line?

If I’m wearing Coach boots and the logo is visible, should I feel exposed if the display switches to a Coach ad? If I’m carrying a Whole Foods shopping bag, should I feel offended if it switches to a yoga retreat promo? In research, shopping habits and brands purchased are often factors in how we create segmentations. The people we are surrounded by already make these heuristic snap judgements. It doesn’t seem so different if a computer does it as well.

Third: What will be a fair exchange for data in an increasingly connected society?

If consumers aren’t aware that their information is being accessed, it shouldn’t be used for anyone’s gain. It’s common practice to state a survey’s incentive at the start. That same information exchange should continue even if advertisements are passively accessing data from you. Knowledge is power…and data points…and money. Owning a smart device doesn’t mean I’m signing away my privacy. The type of incentives may change – coupons, bitcoin – but they should be offered, and consent to participate or share information should remain your choice.

While this facial-recognition advertising approach is in its infancy, it does make you wonder what the future will hold. The Oculus Rift is gaining traction. Perhaps the counter point will be glasses that block ads, requiring you to pay a fee for each ad intercepted. There was a similar idea in the BBC TV show Black Mirror. If you run out of points, you can no longer block advertisements and you are forced to look at the screens you’re surrounded by. As a consumer, this latest advertising advancement makes me feel like a foregone conclusion. From the market research and advertising perspective, it’s a logical next step in a world teaming with data and competing for your attention. We just have to approach these new capabilities in a socially conscious way.