Adaptive retail advertising: Should customers know?

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A new artificial-intelligence innovation could serve smarter POS ads -- and worry shoppers

For years, retailers have quietly toyed with a wide range of technologies to track shoppers surreptitiously.

Some merely count the number of shoppers. Others have used small aisle-mounted cameras literally to watch the eyeballs of shoppers as they read labels — an effort to figure out what words they read the instant before they choose to put the product back and not buy it.

Researchers are now trying something similar with retail advertising, according to Retail Week. Instead of just analyzing the eye movements for later analysis, the prototype system (developed by Queen Mary University and London agency Lean Mean Fighting Machine) uses artificial intelligence to let software make its own marketing decisions. POS displays at retail checkouts will display a randomized assortment of advertising messages. Based on eye movement, the software will conclude which messages grabbed the most attention and display them much more frequently.

An upcoming version will add Xbox's Kinect motion-sensing technology to measure the heartbeats of shoppers, the story said, "to ascertain whether people have been excited, angered or nonplussed by the message."

When exploring the potential creepiness of a marketing technique, it's important to ask how people would feel if a human did the same thing. If a cashier were instructed to note which messages people tended to look at at checkout and to note specifically if they seemed pleased or hostile, would that anger shoppers? Probably not, as the cashier is simply observing a public reaction from where she is working.

The ability for software to do this secretly and continually, though, is what it makes it so valuable for marketers and advertisers.

There's potential negative pushback from shoppers if they found out. If a program is kept secret and shoppers find out about it, they will likely be furious about it and complain on social media (even if they wouldn't have cared if they'd been notified). The decision to keep it secret can easily suggest something nefarious.

Consider the furious response when the city of New York permitted a vendor to place mobile tracking beacons in 500 phone kiosks — and never told anyone.

The beacons were designed to transmit mobile ads, but they couldn't have learned more about individual mobile users than current systems, especially if those individuals are using free WiFi services.

The New York Times argued that the beacon blowup was unfortunate, given the advantages that a network of such devices could deliver. "They could enrich museum experiences, deliver the right recipe in the grocery store aisle, take us on interactive tours of cities and towns, let us quickly and easily check into hotels or even pay at the gas pump. And used properly, sure, they could also deliver the right coupon at the right time."

The moral of the story: Announce all mobile tracking efforts, but do so in the dullest possible way.

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