The billboard is listening.
In an advertising ploy right out of Steven Spielberg's
"Minority Report," electronic billboards in the Bay Area and
Sacramento are being equipped to profile commuters as they
whiz by -- and then instantly personalize freeway ads based on
the wealth and habits of those drivers.
For example, if the freeway were packed with country music
listeners, the billboards might make a pitch for casinos. If
National Public Radio were on, the billboards could change to
ads for a high-quality car or a gourmet grocery.
The billboards -- in Palo Alto, Daly City and Fremont --
will pick up which radio stations are being played and then
instantly access a vast databank of information about the
people who typically listen to those stations. The electronic
ads will then change to fit listener profiles.
In the buzzy hum of 21st century commercialism, it's the
latest way for businesses to target consumers without wasting
money on scattershot appeals. Many auto dealerships already
use a similar system to identify the stations people are
listening to as they pull into a car lot -- and then place ads
on those stations.
"You know what this is about? Accountability," said Tom
Langeland, president of the Sacramento firm Alaris Media
Network, which owns the 10 video screen billboards in
California. "People are struggling, the world is becoming a
more competitive place, and advertising dollars have been a
huge, misplaced factor. Advertisers don't know where their
money is going."
Langeland said the technology should be in place within a
few weeks on electronic billboards off Interstate 280 at
Serramonte Shopping Center and off Interstate 880 at Southland
Mall near Fremont. Another sign on Highway 101 in Palo Alto
also is being outfitted. Billboards in Sacramento, nearby
Roseville (Placer County) and Los Angeles also will use the
In Spielberg's "Minority Report," Tom Cruise's character
makes his way through city streets as billboard advertisements
scan his retina and then personalize ads for products.
BIG BROTHER WORLD
Several of the Bay Area residents contacted by The
Chronicle said they were mostly resigned to a Big Brother
world where government and corporations collect large amounts
of information on citizens, often without permission.
Many worried about the distraction of the large,
video-screen billboards. Vernon Burton of San Leandro called
it "junk capitalism" motivated by shameless greed. Lowell
Young of Mariposa said, "Everyone should turn off their radios
until they let us have our privacy back."
"What's next?" asked Rob Blackwelder of Oakland. " . . . It
would be as if someone knocked on your front door and said, 'I
couldn't help notice through your window that you're watching
Fox News. . . . Could I interest you in a subscription to (the
conservative magazine) National Review?' "
The California system uses a "consumer monitoring system"
developed by Mobiltrak of Chandler, Ariz., to pick up radio
waves "leaked" from the antennas of up to 90 percent of all
cars passing by and pinpoint the stations being played.
Each station has a typical listener profile derived from
detailed consumer surveys. The system will assess the most
popular radio station during a given hour and target the ads
to those drivers.
"I can tell you how much money they spent on fast food in
the last week. I can tell you where they are shopping," said
Phyllis Neill, chief operating officer of Mobiltrak. "I can
tell you what percentage of them were married and shop at
Petsmart and made more than $100,000 a year and potentially
could come to Office Max in the next six months."
DATA COLLECTED AND PASSED ON
Neill envisions a system of Mobiltrak-equipped billboards
along, say, a six- mile stretch of freeway. The first
billboard's receiver would collect data on a block of cars and
send it to the billboards farther on, which would then switch
to the appropriate ads.
"We have only just begun to scratch the surface of what the
technology can do," Neill said.
Privacy experts are not particularly worried about the new
billboards, as long as society continues to allow people to
remain anonymous. But they do notice a shift in focus: Where
the big concern used to be Internet privacy, now it's physical
space, from closed-circuit monitoring to red-light cameras.
"I don't think it's really so much about stopping
technology or pulling the shades a little tighter," said Marc
Rotenberg, executive director of the nonprofit Electronic
Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C. "It's about
making sure there are safeguards on the personal information
that businesses collect."
Neill said the technology doesn't have the ability to
listen to people's conversations or CD players, nor would
advertisers even care about such things.
The technology is designed to be anonymous and passive, she
said, and relies on information about large numbers of
Hollywood already is installing similar technology in movie
theater ads -- electronic "posters" that interact with
customers to show moving digital images. Walk by an electronic
poster of Jennifer Lopez, and she might wink at you.
"Minority Report" producer Bonnie Curtis, in a recent New
York Times article about the new medium, said she could
envision interactive posters that talk to moviegoers, perhaps
in Spielberg's voice.
"When I hear him say, 'Hey, Bonnie, I like that blouse. Why
haven't you come to see my movie yet?' " Curtis told the
Times, "then I'd say we are getting very close."
E-mail Robert Salladay at email@example.com.