05/12/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Be First on the National Billboards-May-Not-Talk-to-Me List

Researchers at NEC in Japan are working on a billboard that will scan your face, guess your age, determine your sex and then deliver an ad personalized (supposedly) just for you. I first heard of this advance in advertising science in an email. I replied that it would be about as welcome as a new plague of flesh-devouring viruses. A friend responded, "That's unfair to flesh-eating viruses." He's right, of course. I apologize.

As the Telegraph of London most recently reported--and as anyone with a fondness for Steven Spielberg would have noted--a billboard making a personal pitch first appeared in the 2002 sci-fi hit "Minority Report," about a cop named Jon Anderton (played by Tom Cruise) who arrests people before they commit murders. In the movie, Anderton walks through a future mall and the billboards begin calling his name and pitching him personally. A Lexus billboard tells him, with no apologies to Robert Frost, "The road you're on, Jon Anderton, is the one less traveled." And so on. The visuals make it appear that the billboards are using retinal scans to identify the unlucky Anderton.

I saw an interview with Spielberg when the movie came out. He claimed he had consulted with advertising experts and they were predicting the creation of just such customized messaging machines. Once my stomach had settled down, I wrote a piece saying, essentially, that Spielberg's experts were clueless. Who, I wondered, actually believed that people would embrace such a wholesale invasion of their privacy?

At the time, the Federal Trade Commission was changing its telemarketing rules to create the National Do Not Call Registry, which took effect the following year. The EU was banning unwanted email, spam filters were getting more effective, and opt-in-only was taking the world by storm.

In short, law and technology were ganging up on marketers to ensure that people stopped being deluged with unwanted, irrelevant commercial messages. In that atmosphere, I assumed (silly me), that no one would be crazy enough to invest millions to invent a billboard that was bound to get outlawed about three weeks after the first of its kind appeared in an American mall.

But I was wrong, of course.

The new NEC technology was originally to be used simply to find out if anyone was looking at a billboard and, if so, for how long. That seemed pretty benign to me. Now, however, according to numerous reports (like this one or this one, the system has been enhanced with intelligent facial recognition software that determines the age, gender and attention level of passers-by and serves up ads accordingly. Creepily enough, the system is called "Eye Flavor" and debuted in a shopping center in Japan last October. At the moment, it only works on Japanese faces, according to reports, but other nations' faces are soon to be added.

Apart from the software, the system is simple: All digital billboards are equipped to show multiple messages. In the Eye Flavor system, a camera is mounted on the billboard so the sign can "watch" the passing crowd. Images of passers-by are sent to an NEC server where they are processed through the facial recognition software, which then drives the choice of which ad is displayed on the sign.

All this reminds me of the huge controversy that inflamed the web when Facebook first began letting advertisers target their ads using personal information from Facebook pages. This practice, since modified by Facebook, still allows the creation of ads that are universally hated--like the ones that use your birth date information to serve up such endearing, "personalized" come-ons as, "Here's the perfect thing for someone who is 58 years old!!!!" Needless to say, the advertised items are usually less than perfect.

There are two huge problems with the NEC systems and all other marketing approaches that try to use "intelligent" software: First, the software isn't that intelligent. You can bet that NEC's Eye Flavor will get your age and gender wrong a good deal of the time.

Second, of course, is the central problem--what exactly do you know about me if you know my age and gender? There is far more variation in taste, needs and wants within age and gender groupings than between them. Using this kind of broad demographic data to target ads is simply old-fashioned and doesn't work.

What is happening here is that technology companies, aided and abetted by lazy advertisers, are trying to find a shortcut around the tough job of creating and distributing content that is interesting and valuable enough to attract the attention of the intended audiences.
Message to marketers: The age of interruption is really over. It won't help if the interruptions are powered by smart software. They are still interruptions and, in the majority of instances, according to repeated survey data, totally unwanted and unproductive. An advertiser can pretend to know me but I still will know that it's not true. The whole notion that software can create a personal connection where none exists strikes me as absurd.

It's really time for smart marketers to stop pretending, stop using shortcuts and get down to the hard task of adding value to people's lives with their messaging.