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Advertisers are continually competing for our attention, looking for novel ways to influence and persuade. The next wave of innovations is coming to a city near you soon: crowd-aware billboards, which sense the passing demographics of the crowd and adapt accordingly.

With a global spend of over half a trillion dollars[1], the industry is keen to ensure efficiency. One key principle is targeting. You're a single, white, university-educated female in your late twenties, who earns £30,000 and enjoys the gym? Great, you're the prime demographic for product X. Forty-something male with two young children and a taste in expensive shirts? You get product Y, or perhaps product X pitched in a different way.

Currently, the leading-edge of targeted advertising is online but billboards are about to make a comeback, and blur the lines between ‘old’ and ‘new’ media.

Responsive signage

NEC, Intel and Microsoft have been in partnership since 2010 to develop 'Next Generation Digital Signage' – electronic posters which use facial-recognition technology to identify the gender and approximate age of viewers in order to display more appropriate content. Responsive video billboards are also being created by New York startup Immersive Labs. Its system detects whether passers-by are watching, and if not, will try a different advert to see if it is more appealing.

Technology is also being applied to a second advertising principle: localisation. There is currently huge interest in location-based mobile marketing – that is, displaying different ads, search results, or even prices depending on our location.

The confluence of demographic targeting and localisation is especially powerful given that our online habits are increasingly linked to smartphones. The location data they provide is tremendously valuable to advertisers. Indeed, a Facebook marketing exec recently told me they bought WhatsApp for $19 billion partly for this reason, to link users to a specific device.

One consequence of these trends is billboards in public places gleaning information about the passing crowd, and responding by displaying more relevant content. If this seems unlikely, bear in mind RIM has already filed two patents for adaptive roadside billboards, which would gather information about traffic speed from Blackberry users and display different adverts accordingly. Linking to our Google profiles is a relatively small step.

As with many innovations, however, so much depends on public acceptance. Numerous dystopian stories, from Pohl and Kornbluth’s 1953 The Space Merchants onwards, express our fear that advertising is the psychological weapon of corporate rapaciousness. Add the post-Snowden privacy fears surrounding persistent tracking and behavioural profiling, and marketing triumph is only a shade away from PR disaster.

Respectful and relevant

Yet, markets need information to function. Surveys show most of us do want to find out about products and services which are useful, and we are often responsive to new ways of presentation. Furthermore, most of us still use Google or Facebook, despite knowing our personal information feeds their advertising-based revenue models. What we dislike are mis-targeted ads and obvious manipulation.

For the developers of innovative advertising technology, there is a tension between visible novelty and unobtrusiveness. It also feeds into a much broader debate between data-led innovation and data protection. My prediction is that we’ll see this technology debut in our major cities by the end of the year, but its long-term success will depend on consumers’ ongoing willingness to give away personal data, as well as on advertisers’ ability to keep content respectful and relevant.

[1] [Source: ZenithOptimedia],