'Big Ad Brother' tunes in on drivers

The Oakland Tribune 01/10/03: Janis Mara

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DRIVERS WHIZZING past the Southland Mall electronic billboard near Interstate 880 here may not know it, but soon Big Brother will be listening to them.

In about a month, the billboard will have technology that picks up which radio stations are being played in cars driving by, and changes its freeway ads according to the buying proclivities of the drivers.

Similar video screen billboards are under construction in Palo Alto and Santa Clara. Currently, only one such video screen is up and running, in Sacramento at the Cal Expo fairground. An additional Sacramento screen will go live this week.

The technology identifies the radio stations being played in 60 to 80 percent of the cars going by. It then accesses a databank of information about the people who typically listen to those stations. The electronic ads then can be changed to fit these listener profiles.

The information is collected only in the aggregate, said Phyllis Neill, chief executive of Arizona-based Mobiltrak, the company that developed the consumer monitoring system.

Neill's consumer monitoring

system picks up radio waves leaking from the car antennas and identifies the stations.

"In an hour's time, if 100,000 cars pass that sign, we're going to capture roughly 80 percent of them and will get the radio characteristics of 80,000 cars. By the time they've measured what those 80,000 cars are listening to, those 80,000 cars are gone," she said.

"This is really more like a marketing tool that tells you what time of day a specific ad might reach the most people on the freeway," Neill said. "With most billboards you put up a paper board that is the same during the entire length of time it's up.

"With LED boards, since you can change them, it's possible to find out what time of day the people you want to reach would see your ad and change it accordingly."

An example might be that if an alternative or college radio station was playing in many cars in the afternoon, the billboards would flash ads for trendy clothing stores. More conservative radio stations at another time might trigger ads for high-quality cars.

The ads themselves are in color and incorporate images that fade in and out, according to Tom Langeland, president of Sacramento-based Alaris Media Network. The typical ad is anywhere from a minimum of 300 square feet to a maximum of 800 square feet. Standard billboards are 600 feet.

"We are going to run this for a month before we change the ads to get an idea of the general profile of drivers," he said. "We would run it 24 hours a day in order to compile the data to make sure the data is consistent. This way we know for sure, for example, that from 2 to 4 p.m. Monday people are listening to a given radio station."

Because the data is compiled in the aggregate, it isn't terribly dangerous to consumers' privacy, according to a privacy advocate.

"From a privacy viewpoint, it may be a little unsettling," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Center in Washington, D.C. "But if you can keep it in the aggregate, it's not as serious.

"I understand this relies solely on the car radios and does not tell anything about the driver of the car, so I'm not screaming as loudly about this as I usually do."


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