Digital Billboards Are Tracking You. And They Really, Really Want You to See Their Ads.

Data including your gender, age, race, income, interests, and purchasing habits can be used by a company such as Five Tier to trigger an advertisement right away. Or, more often, it will be used for planning where and when to show ads in the future—maybe parents of school-age children tend to pass a particular screen at 3 p.m. on weekdays, while 20-something singles usually congregate nearby on Saturday nights.

Then the tracking continues. Once your phone is detected near a screen showing a particular ad, an advertising company may follow up by showing you related ads in your social media feed, and in some cases these ads may be timed to coordinate with the commercials you see on your smart TV at night.

It doesn’t stop there. Advertisers are keenly interested in “attribution,” judging how well a marketing campaign influences consumer behavior. For instance, is it better to target people like you with online ads for fast food right after you see a restaurant’s new TV commercial, or to wait until after you drive by a new billboard the next day? The advertising industry looks for the answers by watching where you go in person, what you do online, and what you buy with your credit card.

These aren’t futuristic scenarios. They are a recent but growing trend, according to executives in the advertising business. “The industry has really started to wake up to this within the last year,” says Ian Dallimore, the director of digital growth for Lamar Advertising, a leader in out-of-home advertising. “If you’re not using data to better plan and buy ads, then you’re probably not doing out-of-home the right way.”

Researchers say that as tracking and ad targeting spill over from the web into the real world, our collective privacy and sense of control are eroding. If you don’t want to see ads at home, you can close your browser or turn off your phone, but you can’t avoid the ads you see in public. And there’s no practical way to completely block the location tracking used to place those ads.

“Advertising has been increasingly interested in using behavioral psychology to nudge people in particular ways,” says Matthew Crain, assistant professor of media and culture at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. “The ability to gather data on what we do and how we move through the world makes that more effective. It raises new questions about the lines between persuasive advertising and manipulation.”

The out-of-home market provides a fresh window into how consumer data is being used by advertisers. Soon, it seems, almost every part of your life may be just another data point for marketing clients to consider and another opportunity to monetize your attention by showing you an ad.

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