The advertisement world is getting smarter. Advertisers learn from your online behavior from browsing to social media activity and show you relevant ads, but that is not all. The advertising billboards that we see around are not as naive and harmless as we might have imagined. Just a little while back, a Swedish pharmaceutical company installed an interactive billboard that coughs when a passerby smokes. In the modern digital world, there is no such thing as privacy. A few years ago, it was not as easy to capture a photo of some random person in public without them knowing, but with every person holding a smartphone today, it is almost a piece of cake. You can capture anything you want, with tiny hidden cameras and no one would know. A pizzeria in Oslo, Norway is taking advantage of technology in adverts that film the passersby and show advertisements accordingly.
The monitoring system that filmed the people, analyzed their facial features, and expressions, to customize the adverts was kept hidden until accidentally revealed at the beginning of May. The advertisement’s system crashed, and the screen displayed the software code instead of ads. That would have been okay but a Linus Tech Tips forum user “Nepturion” was passing by the Peppe’s Pizza in the shopping center, when he saw the code on the billboard. Looking closely, he discovered a camera hidden in the wooden frame, and then read the messages on screen that appeared to be describing him. He then noticed that those characteristics changed everytime a different person passed by.
A crashed advertisement reveals the code of the facial recognition system used by a pizza shop in Oslo… pic.twitter.com/4VJ64j0o1a
— Lee Gamble (@GambleLee) May 10, 2017
The information displayed by the code said things like, “male – young adult,” “smile,” “glasses” etc. The software then uses this information to display adverts based on physical traits and facial expressions. He took some photos of the digital advertisement board and posted them on the forum where they went viral in no time. He wrote on the Linus Tech Tips forum, “There are these billboard ads, which people look at for information. This isn’t news. Instead but there is a camera over the billboard, and it registers persons looking at the billboard itself. It gives feedback in form of code which is revealed when the software crashed.”
The revelation of monitoring adverts brought the Norwegian social media to a debate where some people even argued that filming people without their consent is illegal. Even though that is not the case, the pizza place decided to take down the advertisement due to people’s criticism. Peppe’s Pizza, however, did not admit the reason to be people’s criticism, instead, they said the digital advert’s trial period had come to an end.
ProntoTV was the company that developed the advertisement system and their marketing and communications manager, Jørn Olsen explained how the ads work. If there is any person at a maximum distance of five meters from the display, the camera analyzes their features and expressions, and then displays a relevant advertisement based on a variety of factors including the time for which you look at it. “If a woman passes by the sign, the banner will show more healthy food options, with less meat. So we can see how long this woman looks at the screen when certain adverts are displayed, and use this information serve these adverts to other women,” explained Olsen.
People may be concerned with their privacy and have an impact that the camera is watching them to know about them, but in real, they are just doing a very generic demographic segmentation, just like the online advertising companies do. ProntoTV says that they had obtained approval from Norway’s Data Inspectorate before installing the billboard but a senior advisor with the inspectorate, Stian D. Kringlebotn says that despite being legal, it has serious privacy implications and the Inspectorate has no experience in this field.
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