Birmingham is getting a taste of Big Brother. As part of the renovation work being carried out on the train station, three massive eye-shaped screens are being installed – rather reminiscent in appearance to disembodied evil straight out of Lord of the Rings. The screens, which boldly display messages and adverts, also have built-in cameras. Oh yes, the eye-shape is not just a whimsical design feature, but actually speaks to the function of these new displays.
So, why the cameras? From their vantage point above the masses, they scan and analyse demographics (I’m guessing age and gender but who knows?). Once a demographic sample has been taken, Sauron, excuse me, I mean the display then presents relevant advertising to the crowd below. All very disturbing. But before we all start quoting passages from the works of George Orwell and getting upset about adverts that scan us, I think we may not have cause to fear.
I have another piece of literature in my mind. I’m thinking Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Bear with me. For those less familiar with the works of J K Rowling, in this particluar book there is a creature/entity called a Boggart. A shape-shifter that takes the form of the viewers’ worst fear, rather like the new displays, except instead of fears the display changes to show targeted messaging.
However, in the book the best defense against a Boggart is to be with other people, to confuse it. As the Boggart tries to represent multiple fears it produces laughable results. So here we are with these demographic sensing screens trying to display relevant information, but how can it with a crowd of individuals staring at it? Will it produce laughable results like the Boggart? Or simply banal, generic, location contextual messages you didn’t need a camera to infer?
We have however, seen effective uses of this technology. The recent gender-detecting ad from German beer brand Astra (featured in our very own Daily Poke, check it out here Queen of beers). It’s more intimate and often humorous with the interaction limited to a couple of people at once. However, if the Birmingham Boggart screens are scanning entire crowds of people how can they make an ad meaningful and relevant to the individual?
I can see what they’re trying to do here, and that is to replicate the online experience where ads change to reflect your preferences, out in the ‘real’ world. I imagine the display has a very clever algorithm that pumps out, say, a Nike ad when it detects a majority of youth in the crowd, or maybe an ad for Saga when it senses a majority of over 50s in the crowd. Problem is, we live in a flat-age society where people’s tastes and interests are no longer dictated by what gender they are, or when and where they were born. Online you can use search terms to start to build a picture of someone, maybe even ‘likes’ and ‘reposts’ but even then it’s still not perfect; you should see the stuff Google thinks I’m into!
We live in an age where brands are desperately trying to get up close and personal with consumers, we want personal service, one-offs and products tailored to our tastes and interests. I’m a big advocate of technology and the personalisation trend is one that I keenly follow. Technology can deliver amazing experiences and help us gain a deeper understanding of consumers. The trick is to use it wisely. Could the screens in Birmingham give rise to questions about privacy instead of amazement? Time will tell whether they can deliver on the promise of personal relevant marketing but one thing is for sure, they’re definitely eye-catching.