New Smart Billboards Will Bring “Big Brother” Ads


If you needed another reason to oppose digital billboards, this could be it. At least two companies are today creating new digital billboards that use tracking data gathered from cell phones and car GPS devices, linking that data with demographic information, and using all of that data to target digital billboard messages at locations where specific demographic groups congregate.

Yes, that’s right: The companies gather data on what sorts of people pass by the locations with billboards that they control (seniors, Latinos, commuters, youth, males, etc.) at what times of day, and customize their display ads to reach them.

One of the companies, GeoPath, calls itself an “audience location measurement” firm. Here is how they describe what they do: “By processing and incorporating many industry-changing data sources such as connected cars, weather data, population growth factors, and the locations & trips of hundreds of millions of anonymous mobile devices, our systems will be able to do things like respond to seasonal, daily, & hourly variation, provide post-campaign delivery information, and much more.” So if your smartphone has location services enabled for any app at any time, or you are using GPS in your car, GeoPath will suck up that data and use it to target billboard ads to where you are going.

The other firm, Accretive Media, controls more than 100,000 screens across the United States, a number that’s sure to grow. It claims that it has the richest consumer data set available today, “combining people-based consumer profiles with geotemporal mobile information.” Accretive media “balances intelligent targeting with mainstream appeal, leveraging rich deterministic information to make outdoor messages impactful, targeted, and real.”

For example, a heavy rush-hour flow of males between the ages of 18 and 25 might convince a fast-food chain to buy placement on a digital billboard from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m near its locations. These firms are basically doing on billboards what is already done in your web browser: Targeting ads to you based on demographic information and preferences that you show by your internet behavior.

Did you consent to have your information shared this way? It’s already happening.

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