In the 2002 movie Minority Report, the main character walks past a bank of billboards, which scan his retina, assess his state of mind, and immediately call out relevant ads just for him. For example, while he’s on the run, an American Express billboard says to him, “It looks like you need an escape, and Blue can take you there.” Another ad then calls out, “John Anderton, you look like you could use a Guinness.”

Even though companies have been using data to target their marketing and gather insights about their consumers since the 1990s, some people found the movie’s idea of interactive advertisements “farfetched” in 2002. However, data-collecting “smart” billboards are becoming a reality today.

Who? What? How?

In early 2016, Clear Channel Outdoor—one of the largest outdoor advertising companies in the US—started a new program called RADAR that uses billboards to track habits and behaviors of nearby consumers.

How does this new program work? It uses “anonymous aggregated data from consumer cellular and mobile devices.” As described in a video on the Clear Channel Outdoor website, “RADAR measures consumers’ real-world travel patterns and behaviors as they move through their day, analyzing data on direction of travel, billboard viewability, and visits to specific destinations.”

To make this possible, Clear Channel Outdoor has partnered with “AT&T Data Patterns, a unit of AT&T that collects location data from its subscribers; PlaceIQ, which uses location data collected from other apps to help determine consumer behavior; and Placed, which pays consumers for the right to track their movements and can link exposure to ads to in-store visits.”

Billboards have always been a staple of old school advertising — largely unmeasurable and resistant to today’s digital world. That’s why Clear Channel’s work is undoubtedly an interesting development in the world of data collection and data-driven marketing. Bringing billboards into the twenty-first century gives those tasked with reaching a target market a way to know if their billboard ads are being seen and, if so, by whom. Advertisers can make their marketing more effective, and those on the receiving end of the ads are now more likely to be met with something of interest to their lifestyle.

Clear Channel Outdoor isn’t the only company to realize the value of understanding, even more finitely, the consumers they are targeting. In 2015, Yahoo applied for a patent of a smart billboard that can collect data through sensors, cameras, and microphones.

According to the patent, the billboard could collect biometric data to determine “whether the audience corresponds to a target demographic.” The patent also suggests that the smart billboards could collect data or images from mobile devices to “identify specific individuals in the target audience” and “identify specific vehicles and/or drivers.”

smart billboards
One of Clear Channel’s initial tech-enabled billboards, displayed in Orlando, Florida. Credit: Clear Channel Outdoor

In more direct terms, Campaign explained: “Microphones could collect conversations that would reveal audience reaction to the ads, and proximity sensors could show how close people get to the billboards. ‘Eye-tracking sensors’ could determine whether passersby are looking at the ads and for how long. Image recognition techniques and mobile data could be used to form a more focused profile of the audience.”

While Clear Channel Outdoor and Yahoo have been the most outspoken about using this new technology, there are still others joining the trend. Posterscope, an out-of-home communications agency, has been testing the use of mobile data and image recognition technology. Like Yahoo, it is planning to introduce more advanced billboards.

Quividi, a Paris-based data-collection company, recently launched their technology in New York City, using cameras placed within billboard displays to determine who was looking at the billboard and what ad they should be shown.

This technology is impressive and opens many doors for industries that rely on big data. At a time when knowledge is power, it’s no surprise that data collection is evolving to better understand the millions—if not billions—of people needed to make a company thrive. But what about privacy?

How much is too much?

Not surprisingly, people have criticized the ethics of data collection long before these billboards existed, with those against data collection speaking out primarily about consumer privacy violations. In 2014, the Federal Trade Commission called for a curb on consumer data collection, citing an “out-of-control” digital data collection industry that knows more about us than our family or our friends.

The complaints, while they criticize big data generally, seem to mainly focus on the fact that many consumers don’t know they are being tracked, raising serious questions about the intentions of big data collection agencies and the companies they sell to. Secrecy, generally, raises a big red flag.

Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, is someone who questions the need for and ethics of data collection. “People have no idea that they’re being tracked and targeted,” he told the New York Times about RADAR billboards. “It is incredibly creepy, and it’s the most recent intrusion into our privacy.”

smart billboards
Billboard that uses a camera to collect data from passers-by. Credit: Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times.

Despite the criticisms, it’s easy to believe that technology for data collection will keep evolving to offer more insights about potential consumers. As Andy Stevens, Senior Vice President for Research and Insights at Clear Channel Outdoor, explains, the company is using the same data that mobile advertisers have been using for years. “It’s easy to forget that we’re just tapping into an existing data ecosystem,” he said.

Companies behind this new technology also emphasize the anonymity behind all of the data collected. Dan Levi, Chief Marketing Officer for Clear Channel Outdoor, explains that RADAR does not collect personal data from individuals — instead of reading individual users’ data, the system collects and focuses on broader patterns of behavior.

How pervasive are these smart billboards?

Originally, Clear Channel Outdoor launched their billboards in 11 major metropolitan areas, most notably Los Angeles and Times Square in New York. Since their debut, RADAR billboards have expanded to over 30 U.S. markets, a clear indication that we will be seeing more as opposed to fewer of them in the future.

Throughout the last thirty years, consumer data collection has become an essential part of marketing and social understanding. The Federal Trade Commission and other organizations will certainly continue to raise concerns about privacy, worrying that we will one day live in a real-life version of the Minority Report. But while data collection from consumers holds so many advantages, companies will continue to use it, and we can expect to see more types of old-media advertising like billboards moving into the twenty-first century.


Kayla Ferguson is an avid world traveler who writes and does creative stuff to fund her globe-trotting addiction. She can also frequently be found running the mountain trails of Colorado, scuba diving or trying to brainstorm the next world-saving idea with her two best friends--sorry, cats.

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