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'Big Brother' becomes big business

CNN | April 7 2005

(CNN) -- Paul Eden loves his job. It takes him into people's homes and offices and allows him to film their daily lives.

Eden heads Ogilvy Field Brand Investigation (FBI), a division of Ogilvy & Mather, one of the world's largest advertising agencies.

He's commissioned by companies to provide video research of consumers, providing vital insights into their likes and dislikes.

Since launching the research unit in London five years ago, Eden says interest among big corporations has spiraled.

"The real bonus for clients is that they can eyeball the people who are important to them," Eden told CNN.

"This is the way we can invite the consumer into the boardroom. These natural social environments are natural brand environments. Respondents are more willing to talk truthfully about themselves and we're offered the opportunity of seeing them interact with brands and play with brands too which is of course enormously appealing."

There's nothing underhand about Eden's work. All his interviewees are willing participants who have given their consent to be filmed. But that's a legal requirement that is being pushed to the limit by new technologies.

A retail outlet in Belgium recently became the first company in Europe to run a pilot system developed by Sony which uses in-store cameras to film customers for consumer analysis.

The surveillance system allows observers to keep track of how many people are in the store, but also follow their routes, check what they're looking at and what they're ignoring.

Together that information would help retailers identify "hot spots" and "cold spots," giving them vital information for maximizing revenue potential.

As with existing CCTV security systems, stores are obliged to put up clearly displayed notices informing customers that they are being watched.

But marketing analyst Alysen Stewart-Allen of International Marketing Partners said companies using surveillance technology still risked alienating their customers.

"One of the things that any brand needs to consider when they're using this kind of market research tool is how is the consumer going to respond if they are told they are being videoed," said Stewart-Allen.

"If you're a retailer and you're using video taping and they learn somehow that you're filming them and many other people, they could be put off from ever visiting your store again."

But in a culture of CCTV, speed cameras and reality television shows, perhaps it's the case that we're all now more comfortable with the idea of being watched -- something that marketing executives are only now waking up to.

"I think reality television has had an impact in as much as people have become more and more accustomed to cameras in their lives," said Eden.

"And they've also become more and more accustomed to the fact that people are watched for entertainment and for commercial purposes. It's become part of the fabric of our existence."

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