Customisation or intrusion?

There’s the famous scene from Minority Report in which Tom Cruise’s character walks past a billboard and is targeted by name by a specific brand: “John Anderton. You could use a Guinness right about now.” If you were like me, you probably chuckled at that and thought ‘how cool would that be?’ After all, this was 2002 – we didn’t have Facebook or iPhones and we were all still buying CDs.

The reality, however, now appears to be about to smack us in the face. Despite enough warnings, and enough teasers, the reality is here just 11 years later. And, it seems, we’re really not so enthusiastic about the idea.

The belief that we’re a ‘surveillance society’ is nothing new. Even the most optimistic of us accept that is the case, with a poll in the UK back in 2006 citing almost 80% of the public believing this and 51% of the population troubled by it. So with a nervousness like that, can anyone expect any other reaction from the trial by British company Renew of internet-connected recycling bins?

To recap, the trial saw 100 bins with digital screens placed around London, of which 12 of these were connected to the internet and had technology in place to track smartphones. Those bins tracked the MAC address – a unique code assigned to a phone – and sent that data back to a central database. The data was used to judge footfall past those particular bins.

Naturally, people were up in arms. How dare a private company collect our data? What are they going to do with it? Will they be stealing our ID?

First, some perspective. A MAC number is a unique number, but the only data it holds is the make and model of the phone. Nothing more.

Second, data is tracked and stored by thousands of private companies every day: toll road companies, banks, mobile phones. The British government holds almost six million fingerprints. Everyone entering into the US has their fingerprints taken and face photographed. Your life could quite easily be pieced together should someone want to.

Third, no-one wants to. You’re not that interesting. Really.

Fourth, everything we receive is always, always opt in. We can turn anything off. And finally, of all the CCTV in place around in any of these countries – UK, Australia, America – less than 1% is controlled by government authorities.

So, if the general public can understand this reality and get over their squeamishness around having a recycling bin, or a billboard, recognise who they are and offer advertising tailored directly to them, the opportunities for us as consumers and marketers should be huge.

Think about a weekly visit to Coles or Woolworths. What if the billboards in the car park or on the lead up to the store could offer us quick reminders of products we’ve purchased before and let us know they’re on special? What if a competitor product wanted our business and could send a coupon direct to our phone?

As for the privacy issues around this, who really cares if a private company knows I was in the Coles car park at 6.30pm on a Tuesday? After all, the bank knows I was there, and if I SMS or phone someone, then my mobile company will know I was there too, so how is this going to affect our privacy any further?

Since the technological leap with the smartphone, social media and Wi-Fi, there has been a dramatic evolution in our communication patterns, and with near-field communications (NFC) and low-cost touch screens, that communication is continuing to develop further. We’ve got accustomed to targeted ads through social media and Google (although why Asos is trying to sell me a sleeveless wrap dress on Facebook is beyond me) so why are we so scared of outdoor media talking to us?

Much of the fear is driven by ‘traditional’ media outlets who see readership and revenue declining as they struggle to come to terms with companies diverting media spend from the pages of their broadsheets to a small screen on a recycling bin. But really, unless you are actually engaged in criminal activity, there is nothing to fear from a surveillance society.

(Note: I do realise I just sounded like John Hurt in V for Vendetta there, so I’ll rephrase that last statement to a question.)

But really, unless you are actually engaged in criminal activity, is there anything to fear from a surveillance society? Is it all simply a way for scheming marketers to get your date of birth, favourite coffee brand or sporting preferences? Should we be taking baseball bats to evil recycle bins that are an injection of artificial intelligence away from turning into Daleks?

I don’t think so. The danger isn’t our data being abused by a coffee company to persuade us to switch to a Fair Trade brand; the danger is simply repetition. How many times will we be willing to be beamed brand ads to our phones before we just turn them off? That’s the danger, which, ironically, is much the same danger with all advertising. How often will you need to be told you look like you need a Guinness before you switch off? Especially if you don’t drink Guinness.

This is where it breaks down. One of the things we’ve all learnt from those changes in the way we communicate is that advertising needs to be more engaging to really draw us in. How engaging is a billboard bombarding us with coupons to our mobiles? Persuasion, influence and suggestion might work, but intrusion doesn’t. If the medium wants to detect I’m male and in my 30s and show me an advert trying to get me to switch deodorants then fine. If it wants to ping me every time I go into Coles, then it’s going to get turned off very quickly.

We accept the growth of mobile marketing and this format being the way forward for much of our communication but the one overriding factor that remains that everything that reaches those mobiles is opt-in. And whether you invest in data-grabbing billboards or recycling bins that single, hyphenated word is probably the most important factor for any marketing company to remember.


Simon Dell
BY Simon Dell ON 24 September 2013
Simon is a former full-service agency managing director that ran for seven years and delivered for clients across Australia. He now runs his own digital consultancy working with Australian businesses helping with online communication and creative strategies. Find Simon on Twitter at @IAmSimonDell, on LinkedIn at IAmSimonDell and Facebook at SwitchYourBusiness.