Facial recognition ad tech flunks the creepiness test, but someone will make it work

Billboards are a pretty inefficient way of advertising to people, if you think about it. 

You plaster pictures of your product on a big poster by the side of the road and hope that not only will someone in your target demographic walk or drive past it, but they’re in the right frame of mind to take in all the key details, remembering for a later date that they might like to give your product a try. That’s quite a big ask if they’re distracted by anything else like, say, not crashing the car they’re driving.

Alfi Inc. has a way of targeting people with adverts relevant to them in the real world, and it’s music to marketers’ ears. Music so loud that it likely drowns out the uneasy groans of disapproval from the general public put off by the general creepiness factor.

The idea, according to Bloomberg, is that using cameras and artificial intelligence, screens can quickly absorb demographic data about who’s near them, and show adverts accordingly. Age, ethnicity, gender and even mood are all factored in, though the last one feels a bit too vague to be useful. Sure, you probably don’t want to show a happy person competitive funeral plan rates, but you probably don’t want to show that to someone who looks miserable, either.

Equally, age has the potential to be somewhat insulting: the passage of life from being advertised surfboards, to patio furnishings to Werthers Originals will no doubt prove that you’re not, in advertiser’s eyes at least, only as young as you feel.

The idea is to put this technology anywhere where a screen could fit: shopping malls, airports or in Uber rides, giving the drivers a little more passive income to subsidise their ever decreasing take. 

In fact, it’s the last one where the technology is mainly being trialled, according to the Bloomberg report, with over 50,000 drivers apparently on the waitlist to get a Lenovo tablet with the software installed and ready to go. It will reportedly deliver additional income of up to NZ$457 a month, though notably some drivers on the trial tell the site that said mythical payday has yet to arrive.

For its part, Alfi tries to play down the inherent creepiness of using cameras to guess what kind of thing you might be interested in buying. Its ad targeting is, according to the company, done in an “ethical and privacy-compliant manner” with no attempt to figure out the identity of the customer or to save images of them either. 

Notably, it’s compliant with various privacy regulations, including the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and Europe’s particularly onerous General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

For what it’s worth, I don’t particularly have a problem with this method of marketing personally — or rather, I don’t find it any more offensive than the passive kind that goes on all over the internet whether you want it to or not. 

Your search history and social media accounts give more than enough away for advertisers to have a fairly good idea of the kind of things you like, which is why tailored advertising around the web is getting so unnervingly good. Amazon could even get in on the act, if it could figure out that buying a shovel once doesn’t make you a shovel enthusiast, who might be interested in buying five more of the damned things.

But crucially, Alfi has its work cut out for it in making itself seem as acceptable as these big players, even though the invasion of privacy is actually less clear-cut. And that’s not just down to the cameras that are essential to make the technology function — give it a few years and those will be virtually invisible, if they’re even noticeable now. 

No, for me the problem is that Alfi’s product is the demographic based advertising, rather than something developed to support another product that people want to use. 

On some level we all know that the convenience of Google is that our data is collected for advertising, just as we know that having a Facebook or Instagram account means that our data is accessible to people who want to sell us things 24/7. You don’t hear the companies talking about this very much because they don’t have to, and they know it would be off putting. Instead, we get the occasional platitude about taking privacy very seriously, which is enough for us to silence that little voice asking what the hell we’re doing.

But Alfi, and products like it, don’t have that luxury. They need to shout about their USP otherwise investors and advertisers won’t notice them. And the more they shout about it, the more people have the potential to be creeped out by it.

I doubt this will stop advertising by facial recognition in the long run, but it may well end up being a company that has the funds to do so stealthily which pulls off the impossible and makes people ignore the inherent creepiness.

That is, of course, far more insidious, but hey: nobody ever said we humans are logical in what makes our collective skins crawl…

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