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Personalised Advertising

Be honest with yourself; did you lightly sway your head waiting for the gorilla to thrash out that Phil Collins drum solo? Or ask your kid if th­ey had to choose, would it be Daddy or chips? Did you even go so far as to vote for Adam and Jane’s wedding song after watching their relationship unfold through a love of broadband?


Whether you’ve eaten a Dairy Milk bar, popped some McCain fries in the oven or switched your internet provider to BT, it’s likely that these ads ring a bell.

A cartoon image depicting three vibrant posters and stacks of coins. The left poster reads "UMBRELLA SHOE," featuring a high heel. The centre poster is "STAR TREK TRANSPORTERS" with an illustration of teleportation. The right poster shows "GOLDFISH WALKER," with a person and a fishbowl on wheels.

Advertising might just be one of the oldest industries out there and while it’s certainly not going anywhere, the evolving digital landscape is making it that little bit tougher to make an impact on consumers. 


The sheer volume of television and online adverts has made for a suffocating, overwhelming and over-crowded marketplace. So much so, that customers are tuning out. Whilst in the comfort of our own homes, we can fast forward adverts or avoid them altogether with Netflix.

We can block pop-ups on our web browsers with Pi-hole, a neat application billed as a “black hole for internet advertisements” that can be installed on your home network to kill all ads across devices (£30 well spent!). Or, like me, you may simply have mastered the art of drowning out the “white noise” of Grammarly’s incessant YouTube adverts whilst you wait for the next TED Talk clip to play.


Outside your four walls, however, there’s a very different story... 

What's a Brand to Do?

​Out-of-home (or OOH) advertising is — quite simply — advertising that reaches consumers while they are outside of their homes. 


Advertising tycoon David Ogilvy famously hated billboards because “they interrupt without consent.” They are, after all, the only medium that cannot be turned off. 


Think of that fragrance poster at the bus stop, the shopping centre window displays of Lionel Messi flogging anything from trainers to white goods, or the blinding lights of the digital billboards in Times Square or Piccadilly Circus. They are there whether you like it or not. It doesn’t matter if you have a fear of clowns, that poster for Stephen King’s IT: Chapter Two will follow you wherever you go: tube stations, on the side of buses, on the wall by your local chippy.


Outdoor advertising is a well-worn playing field, but the game is changing — and fast.


In the “old world” of static media, grabbing someone’s attention was a simpler task. Produce an eye-catching advertisement with a memorable message, and the captive audience — literally confined to a train carriage, for instance — can’t help but have a gander. 


Nowadays, there are so many more enjoyable, immersive activities for consumers whilst out and about — smartphones, Kindles, podcasts and the like — that communicating with target demographics is trickier than ever. 


A 40-foot wide billboard at Waterloo is all well and good, but what if nobody looks up? Too engrossed with their smartphones to notice? Short of resurrecting Wonderbra’s classic 1994 “Hello Boys” advert — famed for causing car accidents at the time — there is little that companies can do to show off their assets using traditional tactics. But brands aren’t going to stop trying. And with bigger, brighter and bolder displays than ever before… 

A cartoon Times Square-esque scene featuring motivational phrases on billboards, including "BE AN INSPIRATION," "DO YOUR BEST," and "KEEP LEARNING". Monochrome photos of individuals, including Bob Marley and Frances McDormand, are paired with quotes.

From Little Touches to Large Scale

Of course, it’s not just about a memorable marketing campaign anymore. The gradual decline of the high street is reflective of shoppers changing habits. It would be easy to simply dismiss it as being ‘all online now’, but that’s only one part of the story. People do want to shop but they also want an experience.

In a report from SmartHQ, they found 80% of self-proclaimed frequent shoppers will only shop brands that personalise their experience. So, what does that look like?


It can be seemingly small things; when Coca Cola switched out their logo for people’s names (over a thousand of them) they sold over 150 million of the personalised bottles. The opportunity to get your name on a jar of Nutella proved a pretty sweet deal too as they sold over 300,000 jars. It started life as an offer limited to Selfridges in Oxford Street but is now readily available online from a variety of retailers.  

Or how about the personalised Quality Street offering from John Lewis over the festive period? Tins could be topped with a name of your choice and filled with your favourite chocolates. No more unwanted coconut eclairs languishing at the bottom for months on end… 


Unsurprisingly, OOH advertising can take things up a notch. Or two.


Back in 2013, Mini launched personalised billboards that saluted Mini drivers as they passed by. As this awesome video shows, it was a heavily manual campaign requiring “highly-trained spotters” to look out for Mini drivers and send information to digital screens further away. It reinforced the company’s notion that by driving a Mini, you are part of an exclusive club. 


In 2016, Renault used vehicle recognition technology to offer a similar experience. Renault’s head of marketing communications told Marketing Week: “I absolutely believe this is the future of out-of-home… Consumers are increasingly expecting content to be relevant to them, so the more personalised we can be the more compelling we are.”

Should We Be Afraid?

If you think this is starting to sound like something out of dystopian sci-fi thriller Minority Report, you wouldn’t be far off. 


In 2014, Manchester-based entrepreneurs Abdul Alim and Shaz Mughal launched the digital billboard network, Bidooh, after being inspired by the personalised content for Tom Cruise’s character in the 2002 sci-fi movie. They created technology using facial recognition within billboards to identify characteristics from passers-by, such as age or gender, in order to tailor adverts. 


The Telegraph reported in 2018 that Bidooh had 16 test screens in place in Manchester, Oldham, Rochdale and Nottingham, with plans to expand in the Midlands. The company aims to integrate its technology in a further 3,000 screens across Eastern and Central Europe within three years. 


As a self-professed technophile, the concept certainly piques my interest — wouldn’t it be great to only be targeted with relevant products? The latest Sonos speaker offering, automated gadgets for my home, self-lacing Nike trainers and the like. I did, however, find Bidooh’s teaser trailer oddly dull and disturbing…

A cartoon image of a person seated at a desk, working on a computer within a bell jar. Above the jar, a tag hangs with the symbols "$$$" , indicating there is a price to pay to reach the user.

The Dull...

There’s Joe Bloggs, going about his business, when he is “assessed” by Bidooh’s recognition software — from the colour of his clothes to whether he has a beard — and duly presented with a generic Valentine’s Day advert with the address for a local florist. So far, so painfully normal.


The likes of Easter, Christmas and Valentine’s Day are — as I would call them — blanket events. They are relevant to so many people, that personalising such basic messaging is altogether pointless. Promoting gluten-free hot cross buns from an independent bakery, on the other hand — could have a helpful, time-saving impact for the customer. The problem is, that’s not the kind of data that can be extracted from a short shot of someone’s face. 


Companies require cold hard data. Whilst many shudder at the thought of what personal information companies hold about us (have you checked your Google or Facebook profile?), others accept it as an everyday occurrence. In fact, it’s thought that 70% of millennials are willing to let retailers track their browsing and shopping behaviours in exchange for a better shopping experience. A small price to pay?

At this early stage, we simply don’t know, which is why I found the end of the Bidooh clip particularly troubling…

The Disturbing...

​Having successfully purchased a bouquet of flowers for his Valentine thanks to the ever-so-timely digital display advertisement, Joe Bloggs passes the billboard again. This time, the display features an image of a baby in a basket with “The Baby Store” emblazoned across the top. Mr Bloggs gulps and looks down at his phone to see a “Call me!!!” message from his other half. He walks away slowly, seemingly shell-shocked at the prospect of potential parenthood.


The suggestion that a billboard could ever know a couple’s personal life better than they do is daunting enough, but add to that the man’s immediate assumption — that “it” must know something that he doesn’t — and we’re entering truly terrifying territory. And without a clown in sight…


As far back as 2012, there were instances of companies predicting highly personal life events. In February of that year, Forbes shared how Target figured out a teenage girl was pregnant before her father did:


"Target assigns every customer a Guest ID number, tied to their credit card, name, or email address that becomes a bucket that stores a history of everything they've bought and any demographic information Target has collected from them or bought from other sources. Using that, [Andrew] Pole [a statistician at Target} looked at historical buying data for all the ladies who had signed up for Target baby registries in the past.


"…As Pole’s computers crawled through the data, he was able to identify about 25 products that, when analysed together, allowed him to assign each shopper a “pregnancy prediction” score. More important, he could also estimate her due date to within a small window, so Target could send coupons timed to very specific stages of her pregnancy."


My wife and I experienced similar targeting to a lesser extent shortly after the birth of our son. After going from late-night Breaking Bad binges to 6am cartoons, the “Kids” section duly appeared on our Netflix account. And whilst Netflix’s algorithms seem harmless — even helpful — there are much darker techniques at play in determining your likes and dislikes.


In May 2019, Business Insider reported on a widely held belief that Facebook uses smartphones to listen in on users, and then serve those users advertisements based on their speech. Several of my friends were served such adverts, having admired a heat powered fan which sits above my log burning stove at home. When such an obscure item is involved, it’s impossible not to add fuel to the fire of these conspiracy theories. Mark Zuckerberg has an awful lot to answer for…


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