Advertisers scan faces to tailor pitches

Aug 25, 2011 By Shan Li and David Sarno

Picture this: You stop in front of a digital advertising display at a mall and suddenly an ad pops up touting makeup, followed by one for shoes and then one for butter pecan ice cream.

It seems to know you're a woman in your late 20s and, in fact, it does. When you looked at the display, it scanned your and tailored its messages to you.

Once the stuff of science fiction and high-tech crime fighting, has become one of the newest tools in marketing, even though abound.

The Venetian resort, hotel and casino in Las Vegas has started using it on digital displays to tailor suggestions for restaurants, clubs and entertainment to passersby.

Kraft Foods Inc. and Adidas say they are planning to experiment with it as early as this year to push their products.

A group of U.S. bar owners in Chicago last month started using facial recognition, in conjunction with mounted cameras, to keep tabs on the male/female ratio and age mixes of their crowds. Patrons planning a night out can use to get a real-time check of a venue's vibe.

"This helps people avoid those hit-or-miss nights," said Cole Harper, 27, co-founder of the SceneTap company that makes the app.

The commercial applications of facial recognition are in contrast to those being used by law enforcement to identify specific individuals. Companies, at least at this point, mostly just want to pinpoint a demographic based on age and gender to tailor their ads.

But even this facial recognition-lite alarms privacy advocates, given that it could greatly popularize and expand use of the technology.

Intel Corp., which makes such software, said it's widely adaptable.

"You can put this technology into kiosks, , digital signs," said Christopher O'Malley, director of retail marketing for Intel's embedded and communications group. "It's going to become a much more common thing in the next few years."

So far, the technology is in most use commercially in Japan, where a variety of businesses use it to customize ads.

"It's not just clothing stores or restaurant chains," said Joseph Jasper, spokesman for NEC Corp., which makes display screens used for facial recognition-driven ads. Banks, for example, use it to target customers based on their ages, separating out older customers from young people who are more likely to be opening their first account.

The technology works by digitally measuring the distance between the eyes, the width of the nose, the length of a jawline and other data points. Law enforcement agencies that use facial recognition - as was done during the recent London riots - compare the measurements against photos in databases.

But for most marketing uses, the measurements are compared to standardized codes that represent features typical of males and females in various age brackets.

Adidas is working with Intel to install and test digital walls with facial recognition in a handful of stores either in the U.S. or Britain. If a woman in her 50s walks by and stops, 60 percent of the shoes displayed will be for females in her age bracket, while the other 40 percent will be a random sprinkling of other goods.

"If a retailer can offer the right products quickly, people are more likely to buy something," said Chris Aubrey, vice president of global retail marketing for Adidas.

Kraft said it's in talks with a supermarket chain, which it would not identify, to test face-scanning kiosks.

"If it recognizes that there is a female between 25 to 29 standing there, it may surmise that you are more likely to have minor children at home and give suggestions on how to spice up Kraft Macaroni & Cheese for the kids," said Donald King, the company's vice president of retail experience.

worry the technology is one more way for companies to quietly gather data about people without their permission or even knowledge. In June, Facebook Inc. rolled out a facial recognition feature worldwide that could pinpoint individuals. It was used to automatically identify friends when you uploaded photos of them onto the social network.

When members realized this was happening, many loudly objected, calling it creepy and invasive. The feature still exists, but the company apologized and made it more clear how users can opt out.

Earlier this year, Google Inc. said privacy concerns drove the company to abandon a project for mobile phones that would have enabled users to snap photos of someone and then run a search online for other photos of the person.

"We built that technology and we withheld it," Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said at the D: All Things Digital conference in May. He said the decision was made because "of the fact that people could use this stuff in a very, very bad way as well as in a good way."

The nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center said such uses of facial recognition have the potential to violate civil liberties and give governments too much power.

"What if the government starts compiling a database of everyone who shows up to protests?" asked Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the group. "There are so many First Amendment and human rights concerns. It's a slippery slope.

"When you think about facial recognition, you have to ask the questions, 'Why is it being done?' 'Who is it being done to?' 'How is that information used?' and 'What is it linked to?' "

David C. Thompson, an attorney at Munger Tolles & Olson who specializes in privacy law, said the use of facial recognition can catch and expose people during very sensitive moments of their lives, such as going to an abortion clinic or a cancer treatment center.

"The problem is that there are things we do that we don't need a permanent record of," Thompson said. "I don't need other people to know where I've been and what I'm doing."

Ed Warm, co-owner of Joe's Bar in Chicago, said many customers were excited about the SceneTap app that gave them the demographics of the crowd in the bar on any given night, but were clueless that facial recognition technology made it possible.

"Frankly, almost no one seemed to care how it worked," Warm said.

Sami Ari, a 27-year-old social media marketer, is one of about 8,000 people who have downloaded the app. He knew it was at work and didn't mind it.

"I use it at least once a week to find a cool place for me and my friends to hang out," said Ari, who describes himself as "hyper social."

"It's not that scary," he added. "I always get upset at new Facebook privacy settings, and then I get over it."

Explore further: Bringing history and the future to life with augmented reality

5 /5 (1 vote)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Facebook to suggest friends to tag in users photos

Dec 16, 2010

(AP) -- Facebook will try to make it easier to identify friends in photos uploaded to the social networking site by using facial recognition software to suggest people that users may want to tag.

Recommended for you

Patent talk: Google sharpens contact lens vision

Apr 16, 2014

( —A report from Patent Bolt brings us one step closer to what Google may have in mind in developing smart contact lenses. According to the discussion Google is interested in the concept of contact ...

Neuroscientist's idea wins new-toy award

Apr 15, 2014

When he was a child, Robijanto Soetedjo used to play with his electrically powered toys for a while and then, when he got bored, take them apart - much to the consternation of his parents.

Land Rover demos invisible bonnet / car hood (w/ video)

Apr 14, 2014

( —Land Rover has released a video demonstrating a part of its Discover Vision Concept—the invisible "bonnet" or as it's known in the U.S. the "hood" of the car. It's a concept the automaker ...

User comments : 4

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Aug 25, 2011
Straight out of Minority Report.

Brin wrote a book "The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?" that goes pretty deep into this topic. It's a little dated, but I found it to be a decent read when it came out.

People better get used to not being anonymous any more. It will be scary at first, but I think we'll get used to it pretty quick. The key is going to be everybody falling under the same level of scrutiny and pushing out technologies that put these capabilities to scrutinize into everyone's hands.
not rated yet Aug 25, 2011
Being anonymous means I don't have a presumed persona to negotiate. When I go to the store in a small town, everybody knows me. The difference is that I know them too and can adapt my behavior. Most of how people act comes from their self image. So what happens when everyone is treated as a consumer or suspect? I think once we expect it, we become that. There need to be some kind of feedback outside the machine (because it's just a tool), such as: "this is invasive" or "government is out of touch".
not rated yet Aug 25, 2011
The more advertising I see for a product, the less likely I am to want to purchase it. At least that's my post hypnotic suggestion after watching an evening of TV.
not rated yet Aug 26, 2011
"Hey Bill, could you stand in front of this ad screen for me? I want a suggestion besides fried chicken and waffles?"

"Sure no problem Juwan."

I sure hope they use these intelligently...

More news stories

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.

Health care site flagged in Heartbleed review

People with accounts on the enrollment website for President Barack Obama's signature health care law are being told to change their passwords following an administration-wide review of the government's vulnerability to the ...

A homemade solar lamp for developing countries

( —The solar lamp developed by the start-up LEDsafari is a more effective, safer, and less expensive form of illumination than the traditional oil lamp currently used by more than one billion people ...

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...