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High-tech billboards tune in to drivers' tastes
Roadside signs coming to Bay Area listen to car radios, then adjust pitch

Robert Salladay, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, December 22, 2002

Click to View

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 technology.

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 drivers.

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 rsalladay@sfchronicle.com.

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