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Sign Language

They know who you are, how old you are and what you want to buy. But will the new targeted marketing devices actually drive sales?

Author Christina Couch Illustration Emily Cooper

ON HIS WAY THROUGH the Shinjuku railway station, the world’s busiest, a 28-year-old bond trader named Seiji Okawa stops in front of a shiny LCD placard displaying an ad for a popular Tokyo department store. He checks his watch, and when he looks up again, the billboard is displaying an ad for a nearby men’s shoe store. Okawa does a double take at the loafers and makes a note to himself to check them out.

Welcome to the future, where Big Brother, the shadowy authoritarian know-it-all from George Orwell’s 1984, is more likely to be in league with the grocery store than with the government. In Tokyo, cameras are embedded in the ubiquitous billboards posted around the stations, and they’re giving advertising a personal—and eerily precise—twist, delivering completely different messages based on who’s looking. It is the next generation in digital signage, and it’s being tested in Tokyo’s most heavily populated stations and shopping centers. These signs are just some of the latest precision tools that modern marketing gurus are deploying as a means of getting between a consumer and his or her money.

Here’s how it works: When a commuter like Okawa stops near a sign and pauses for as little as half a second, a digital camera snaps a photo of his or her face; then, using facial recognition technology, the software instantly identifies the buyer’s gender and age (within 10 years) and displays an ad custom-tailored to his or her particular buying demographic. Teen boys might see a promotion for the newest Judd Apatow flick, for instance, while their younger sisters see a pitch for Pixar’s latest. It’s a little like abstract art: Everyone sees what they want to see.

For the advertising world, next generation digital signage is a major breakthrough. It’s not only the first outdoor advertising vehicle that can directly interact with consumers as individuals, it’s also the only technology of its kind that gauges consumer interest by measuring how far viewers stand from the ad and how long they look at it. Though its maker, NEC, insists the signs don’t store photos or save an individual’s personal data, they do give companies the ability to track how many passersby stop and view the ad—data with actual, quantifiable value in the marketplace.

“It’s both cool and creepy, and it’s where the industry is headed,” says Michael Janiak, a lead creative with the New York–based interactive advertising firm Digitas.

Google AdSense invented the concept of “contextualized content,” displaying online ads that change according to the content on a given web page or, for Gmail users, correspond to keywords in their emails. Social networks such as Facebook take the idea one step further by including brands based on a user’s location, profession, interests, even religious beliefs. So-called “organic marketing”—when consumers virally repost ads to their social networks—is now the holy grail of almost every brand. An April study of more than 800,000 Facebook users shows that ad awareness doubles and “intent to buy” (manna for marketers) quadruples when consumers see that an ad is associated with their social circle. The catch with all online marketing, of course, is that viewers need to be signed on to encounter such ads in the first place. With technology like NGDS, consumers no longer need a broadband connection to be exposed to digital interactive advertising.

“With this sort of technology, the point of an ad campaign will no longer be just delivering a message by way of a single medium,” says Joe Laszlo, director of research for the Interactive Advertising Bureau, which monitors trends in interactive media. “With the introduction of tablets like the iPad, we’re starting to see virtual magazines, something that you flip through just like you flip through an issue of Vogue now, but when you come to an ad, instead of a picture, it’s a video, something that moves, something that you can tap to learn more about what that product is and how it’s made.”

The next step will bring the individual consumer into the picture in all sorts of innovative ways. For instance, when you come across a shot of a new shirt you like, an application will locate a photo you’ve stored of yourself and dress up your virtual self, letting you actually see what you look like with the shirt on. No need to line up for a dressing room.

Physical advertising is blending ever more seamlessly with the virtual kind. Iain McCready is the CEO of NeoMedia, an Atlanta firm that’s pioneering interactive barcode ads.

“We’ve done campaigns for companies like Volkswagen and Mazda where we tack a barcode onto an ad you would find in print or outdoors,” McCready says. “Consumers scan it with their smartphones, which brings them to a site where they can set their location, language of preference and age range. After we know that someone’s, say, a middle-aged Spanish-speaking woman in Dallas, we can then offer additional interaction with the product, like a deep discount or loyalty rewards.”

McCready adds that such mobile and barcode marketing may be relatively untested in the U.S., but it’s long been an advertising staple in Asia-Pacific markets, where cell phones now double as everything from credit cards to house keys. In Japan alone, cell phone marketing is a $1.4 billion industry, according to Tokyo ad agency Dentsu. The U.S. is struggling to keep pace, hampered by proprietary software issues and privacy concerns, which are, so far, less prevalent in the Asian market.

“In the U.S., information about where a given phone is located has been available for a long time, but carriers have been wary about giving that information to advertisers,” McCready says. “Here, the line between what consumers find cool and what they find uncomfortable sometimes gets blurry.”

We’ll soon find out whether smart billboards will similarly rankle American consumers. They’re alighting on U.S. shores this fall in San Francisco, Chicago and New York. Indeed, NEC has set a very ambitious goal: to incorporate facial recognition software into 10 percent of all digital billboards within the next three years. So smile, fix your hair, and whip out that credit card of yours: Big Brother billboard is watching.

Sydney-based writer CHRISTINA COUCH is always pleased to be recognized—even by a billboard.

One Response to “Sign Language”

  1. John Says:
    September 5th, 2010 at 6:39 am

    Cool in concept – creepy in practice. Does anyone really want this?

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