The adoption of digital billboards means that OOH advertising no longer needs to be static with the same generic message targeted to everyone who walks past it. Over the past few years, the advancement of technology and the creativity of marketers have come together to create memorable outdoor advertising experiences.
For instance, in 2013, British Airways created a digital billboard in London that was able to identify which British Airways plane was flying above it and where it was coming from. To do so, the billboard incorporated surveillance technology to receive data about nearby flights and then trigger the billboard accordingly. In 2015, Battersea Dogs & Cats was able to create an interactive billboard to have a Battersea dog follow customers in a mall. Leaflets designed with special RFID tags were handed out and proximity to any of the billboards activated them to interact with the person holding the leaflet. It was almost as if the RFID tag in the leaflets allowed the billboards to be personalized for their interaction.
Apart from RFID tags, billboards have been equipped to personalize advertising for viewers in other ways as well. Personalized advertising is generally associated with online presence, but OOH technology has found a way to target viewers in other ways. Whether it is based on what cars they drive or based on the real-time contextual information around the billboard, billboards have proven to be a powerful tool in advertising. In fact, an additional OOH advertisement that effectively took into account the space around the advertisement was an interactive billboard by Fiat. Placed near a parking spot, this billboard could assist in parking effectively, thus targeting a problem that car owners deal with regularly. Fiat, of course, was promoted as an effective alternative to their current brand.
Ambient space is not the only way to generate interaction with the viewer. Billboards have also encouraged viewers to use their phones to engage with the advertisement. For example, in 2012, the National Centre for Domestic Violence in the UK created an interactive billboard to show how people could put an end to abusive situations by simply using their phones.
The development of modern technology has clearly augmented the ability of billboards to engage with viewers. In 2017, a billboard introduced in Sweden would “cough” when someone was smoking nearby and then show anti-smoking ads to encourage them to kick the habit. By adding a smoke detector to the billboard, it was possible to add a new component to how the billboard could interact with its surroundings.
It is not enough for OOH to be interactive and engaging. Now they have to JUMP out at you (quite literally) to catch your attention. The latest trend in digital billboards shows the rise of 3D billboards. The past year has seen a wide variety of 3D billboards pop up in different parts of the world: Japan, China, Taiwan, South Korea, India, and United Kingdom. While these billboards are still more common in Asian countries, there is no doubt about the fact that the rest of the world is bound to catch up soon.
Another interesting development within the past year comes from India’s Cadbury Dairy Milk. While in the past we have seen examples of billboards personalizing messages for an individual viewer, most of the time, those messages are also viewable by everybody else around them. However, Cadbury Dairy Milk found a way to have billboards (and even newspaper ads) read a message meant for one person’s eyes only. The “Secret Messages” campaign involved combining a QR code, personalized messages, and specially-generated links to create unique and personal viewing experiences for different people interacting with the ad.
Another fascinating application of outdoor advertising is the application of personalized outdoor advertisements based on individual demographic characteristics. This is demonstrated by an example from Astra Beer called the ‘Girl Detection Billboard’. In this example, Astra Beer put a facial recognition camera into an outdoor billboard that could recognize gender and age. As a person walks past, the billboard can instantly rotate in one of 70 videos that would appear for that particular age/demographic group. In this way, the advertisement was specifically targeted at demographic groups.
Lastly, billboards or Out of Home Vending machines can also recognize distinctive gestures or facial features. For example, coffee company Douwe Egberts programmed a coffee vending machine that recognized when people ‘yawned’. When a ‘yawner’ came by a free coffee was dispensed. This technology can be installed into an outdoor billboard that would show a coffee ad when a tired person walked past. In this case, the billboard might say ‘You looked tired – try a Brand X coffee’.
Increased Personalization in the Future of Outdoor Advertising
The past few years have seen the rapid adoption of new technologies in the outdoor advertising industry. In the next 3-5 years, we expect the trend of digital transformation in the outdoor industry to accelerate at an even fast pace. We believe this change will be driven by desire of marketers to incorporate increased personalization in OOH.
The Astra Beer billboard discussed previously showed the potential of personalized outdoor advertising based on the identification of basic demographics such as age and gender. The Future of Marketing Institute (FMI) believes that age and gender are just the beginning in terms of the targeting and personalization that will be available. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of variables that marketers can identify and use in order to personalize ads to people walking past outdoor advertising. Here are a few interesting use cases that FMI staff are investigating.
Marketing by Exceptional Characteristics
As we just saw, outdoor advertising can be personalized using basic demographic characteristics such as age and gender. Camera technology, combined with artificial intelligence, has been developed that can reliably identify many other basic demographics including weight, height, facial hair and wearing eyeglasses to name a few. In terms of practical application, if someone with a beard approaches an outdoor billboard, the poster could automatically put in a video with a spokesperson that says ‘nice beard’ and then advertise a facial hair grooming product. Or if a tall person approaches the billboard, an ad could instantly be rotated in that promotes a ‘big and tall’ clothing shop within the mall.
Beyond basic demographics and gestures, camera and AI technology is now being utilized that can identify exceptional characteristics. New Balance recently used computer vision to identify uniquely-dressed people walking on the streets of Soho during New York Fashion Week. Specifically, the cameras scanned the crowd to pick individuals that wore clothes that were ‘outside the norm’ of other pedestrians. In order to be able to do this, the New Balance technology had to be able to:
- Identify the different body parts of the person that could have various articles of clothing
- Compare the style with data collected about people walking past the billboard
Those identified as being uniquely dressed were then given a pair of New Balance shoes. During this process, individuals with exceptional clothes were notified of their selection via an outdoor billboard. In essence, this is an example of a billboard giving a unique message to an individual based on their exceptional characteristics.
In the New Balance use case, the exceptional characteristic was the type of clothes the individual was wearing. In the future, we may see advertisers targeting individuals on a multitude of increasingly personal characteristics. Recent research indicates that computer vision can potentially identify highly personal characteristics including sexual orientation, political orientation and acute illness.
Imagine a scenario where a gay person is walking in a shopping mall and the computer vision identifies that person as being gay. An advertisement directed at a gay demographic could then be shown to that individual. Or, if the computer vision identifies someone who is likely to be a Republican, then an advertisement for fundraising for a Republican cause can be shown. Based on the research, all of this is theoretically possible. We believe we will see increasing examples of advertising with exceptional characteristics in the future.
All of this may sound like a dystopian advertising nightmare, reminiscent of the famous mall scene in the hit movie Minority Report. All of this is possible, however, if computer vision can accurately identify exceptional characteristics. Research by Stanford Professor Michal Kosinski found that deep neural networks could correctly identify a single facial image between gay and heterosexual men in 81% of cases, and in 71% of cases for women. The accuracy of the algorithm increased to 91% and 83%, respectively, given five facial images per person. Given that a camera embedded in an outdoor billboard would have several seconds of live *video*, one could reasonably expect the accuracy would increase further.
Privacy and Ethical Issues in the Future of Outdoor Advertising
Tracking technology built into outdoor billboards and posters is steadily increased. Billboards are now equipped with the ability to collect geolocation data from mobile phones. It is becoming increasingly possible for advertisers to know where potential consumers went and what they did after consuming a certain advertisement on a billboard. This level of tracking encroaches on the privacy of people, especially since most of them are unaware they are being tracked and it is unclear how advertisers would even inform consumers of the tracking.
With data tracking on the Internet, there is a level of transparency that can be achieved through banners and pop-ups stating the collection of data and requesting consent for the same. Billboards are generally placed in public spaces where a large number of people are going to walk past them. How would people walking past billboards be able to consent to their identities and data being utilized by billboards to target them?
The legal implications of billboards that track consumers have not been fully explored. When it comes to tracking consumer data, the CCPA law in California or GDPR in Europe allows users to opt-out of various types of tracking and behavioural advertising. In addition, Apple now requires apps to ask users for opt-in consent to be tracked instead of making tracking the default option. However, these laws are related to specific hardware and apps. Identifying a face, clothing or exceptional physical characteristic is very different as there is no reasonable mechanism for someone to ‘opt-out’ of their face or clothing. Identifying someone due to sexual or political orientation is also fraught with serious ethical issues. How will the outdoor industry respond to these concerns?
Outdoor advertising is poised to become an increasingly powerful force in the arsenal of digital marketers. This medium, however, poses unique privacy and ethical challenges that the OOH industry must consider.
Digital Marketing Coordinator, Minto Group
Former Managing Editor, Future of Marketing Institute
Professor David Rice
Schulich School of Business, York University
Executive Director, Future of Marketing Institute