Facial recognition: once the stuff of science fiction and high-tech crime fighting, it’s become the latest tool in marketing.
Picture this: you walk by a digital sign in the supermarket and up pops an ad touting salsa, or graham crackers, or one for Lean Cuisine—because it knows that you’re Hispanic, or a parent, or that you can stand to lose a few pounds.
New facial recognition advertising takes a high-definition scan of your face (and sometimes your body) and then extracts key metrics about the geometry of your bone structure—your jawline and cheekbones, the distance between your eyes and mouth. It compares your results to a massive database of facial markers and can identify your age group, gender, body type, and ethnicity, with what the industry claims to be 90% accuracy in most characteristics. Advertising is then targeted to your specific demographic.
It’s not the future; this is happening now.
Facial recognition software can already be found in vending machines, mall kiosks, and billboards. Las Vegas’ Venetian Hotel uses it to suggest restaurants as you pass through the lobby. Kraft supermarket ads switch their displays of mac and cheese menu variations based on the age and gender of the shoppers passing by. Facial recognition knows your hair color and body dimensions, if you’re pregnant, losing your hair, or likely to be menopausal, and there’s even a version that analyzes your facial symmetry and assigns a numerical ranking of attractiveness.
Obviously, privacy issues abound.
Luckily for the marketers, our online experience has already altered our expectations of personal privacy and security. Google scans our Gmail accounts, cookies track our online browsing, and Facebook has become a worldwide photo identification database. But facial recognition advertising is different. We are unwilling and unknowing participants. It can be found in public locations and we’re given no notice, no consent, and no chance to opt out.
If this sounds more like espionage than advertising, that’s no coincidence. Stealth marketing industry leader TruMedia (corporate motto: Every Face Counts) located its research division in Israel where it recruits many of its engineers from government security agencies where the technology was developed to identify terrorists. The commercial applications of facial recognition are, at this point, all about identifying a target demographic group, not to identify specific individuals as law enforcement does. But the information being gathered has the potential to violate privacy and civil liberties in the name of targeted marketing. At the least it could prove embarrassing as you push your cart through the supermarket trailed by ads for diet aids, prune juice, and hemorrhoid cream.
The tipping point of privacy
Industry analysts predict that by 2015, 22 million traditional signs in grocery stores, shopping malls, bus shelters, restaurants, and other locations will be replaced with interactive digital advertising. Commercial entities will be collecting and capitalizing on a mind-boggling array of personal data; and once it’s out there it stays out there. Somewhere along the line these intrusions upon our privacy will reach the point of no return.