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Grow Your Business Sales & Marketing

Facial Recognition Advertising: The New Way to Target Ads at Consumers

image for Credit: CoolerScreens.com
Credit: CoolerScreens.com

If the refrigerator door's display changes from Pepsi to flavored water before your eyes the next time you walk into a Walgreens, don't be surprised.

Walgreens is rolling out a new technology that embeds cameras, sensors and digital screens into its cooler doors, creating smart displays that target ads to individual customers. The sensors and cameras connect to face-detection technology that can pick out a customer's age and gender, as well as external factors like if it's hot or raining outside and how long you stand there, and even pick up on your emotional response to what you're looking at.

This allows the doors to act as a dynamic, responsive marketplace, similar to how online ads use your information to more effectively advertise to your interests.

The doors boast several benefits, like real-time stock information and instant campaign feedback, but also bring up questions about the future of targeted marketing and where the line of intrusion exists in this modern marketplace.

The doors were created by Cooler Screens Inc. and thought up by CEO and co-founder Arsen Avakian. As the former CEO of Argo Tea Inc., Avakian spent hours in cooler aisles trying to figure out how best to advertise his products.

The doors combine the best of digital power with the traditional lure of brick-and-mortar stores. They show off the products in their best light and provide real-time basic analytics, telling advertisers which items customers picked up or looked at and alerting retailers when certain items are low in stock.

Using proximity sensors, in conjunction with the facial recognition technology, to determine when a customer is approaching, the doors shift what products are in view based on what they think the customer will want to see – ice cream on a hot day, for example, or water for someone who looks like they came from a workout.

The doors can also be programmed to show specific advertisements and promotions. Cooler Screens has partnered with several advertisers like Aquafina, Red Bull, Gatorade, Coca-Cola and Pepsi to display their animated ads between the digital displays on the doors. This feature denotes the real purpose of the doors: a vehicle for advertisements. The doors will track what items you pick up and may show an ad based on that choice – for example, a promo for a frozen pizza if it sees you grabbing a six-pack of beer, which you may also have chosen based on the doors.

The Wall Street Journal piece on Cooler Screens noted that many customers do not know that a lot of drugstores sell beer, resulting in low alcohol sales for those stores. Cooler Screens offers an opportunity to more effectively market such unknown products and increase sales.

As with most recent facial recognition technology, many consumers are concerned with privacy and data protection.

Cooler Screens maintains that it does not store any data and that the data is anonymized, which means it can't track repeated purchases or habits by any particular customer. However, some studies have shown that full anonymization is not possible, particularly in densely populated cities like New York and Chicago – which are two cities where the Cooler Screens have been placed.

Then there is also the perennial issue of AI – whether it is able to truly and accurately read a human's emotions and desires. For example, the technology will most likely rely on data to determine what products it shows, which does not always match up with what a customer is looking for when they come into a store. If a young woman walks up to the screens, she will probably be shown low-calorie frozen meals or diet protein ice cream, when she may actually be looking for Ben & Jerry's or a Red Bull. 

Marketing consultant Nicole Meyerson sees a potential issue in overstimulation.

"We're already approaching the risk of being bombarded by too much visually interesting stimuli in public," she said. "From tech-enhanced billboards to cars with built-in touchscreens, we're already very distracted."

What's more, because advertisements have become so ubiquitous, many consumers are developing banner blindness, the phenomenon of being so inundated with advertisements that we simply stop seeing or absorbing them.

Despite initial concerns, many feel that this is the logical next step in targeted advertising. After all, our internet browsers and social media are full of ads designed for and targeted to us. Most of the time, it is subtle enough that we just don't notice, write it off as a coincidence, or have already clicked 'accept' on too many cookie agreements to care.

"I think this is exactly where marketing is heading, if it's not already there," said Jonathan Mendoza, content marketing specialist at Fueled. "Millennials and Gen Z-ers are the top two demographics, [and] they want to feel seen and heard, so marketers have begun to target these demographics and their specific interests. I think it was only a matter of time before marketing became this personalized." [Read related article: What Businesses Should Know About Working With Gen Z]

Ultimately, the ability to advertise and to target products in real time to shoppers is the logical next step in modern marketing. Consumers want to feel seen and be given exactly what they're looking for almost instantaneously, and this new technology is a strong step in that direction.

Kiely Kuligowski

Kiely is a staff writer based in New York City. She worked as a marketing copywriter after graduating with her bachelor’s in English from Miami University (OH) and is now embracing her hipster side as a new resident of Brooklyn. You can reach her on Twitter or by email.