If the refrigerator door display changes from Pepsi to flavored water before your eyes the next time you walk into a Walgreens, don’t be surprised. Many Walgreens locations now incorporate technology that embeds cameras, sensors and digital screens into the cooler doors, creating smart displays that target ads to individual customers, similar to personalized online ads.
These innovative and interactive 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.
Facial recognition advertising is the use of sensors that recognize a customer’s face and change how an ad appears to them in real time. The goal is to create dynamic ads that adjust to appeal to a person’s interests the moment they notice the ad. [Learn about customer segmentation, which helps make custom advertising possible.]
At Walgreens, the sensors and cameras in the refrigerator doors connect to face-detection technology that can identify a customer’s age and gender. They can also glean external factors, like if it’s hot or raining outside and how long the person has been standing there, and even pick up on the person’s emotional response to what they’re looking at. This allows the doors to act as a dynamic, responsive marketplace, much like how effective online ads use your information to better cater advertising to your interests.
The doors for Walgreens were created by Cooler Screens Inc. and thought up by CEO and co-founder Arsen Avakian. When he was the CEO of Argo Tea Inc., Avakian spent hours in cooler aisles trying to figure out how best to advertise his products. This was his creative solution, one people are likely to see more and more.
The company most commonly associated with facial recognition advertising is Walgreens. As of fall 2021, 750 Walgreens locations – mostly in the Chicago area – were home to 10,000 cooler doors with facial recognition ads.
As a newer technology, facial recognition advertising isn’t yet available to most small businesses. Currently, megacorporations are its primary users, as they have enough money and locations to roll out the technology at scale cost-effectively.
For now, the best way to engage with facial recognition advertising as a small business owner is to keep reading news about it and stay informed about the technology’s evolution. That will help ensure your company is ready and knowledgeable when such tools are available for smaller firms to take advantage of.
Using Cooler Screens as an example, here are some potential benefits of facial recognition advertising.
As with most facial recognition technology, many consumers are worried about privacy and data protection. Here are some concerns to consider when it comes to facial recognition advertising in particular.
No single law covers all data collection concerns for small businesses; the rules you must follow come from several laws. Some of these laws pertain to certain situations only. For example, HIPAA may be pertinent only if you want to open a private medical practice.
Despite the above concerns, many believe the use of facial recognition is the logical next step in targeted advertising. After all, internet browsers and social media are full of ads designed for and targeted to specific users. 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. Advertising based on facial recognition is merely the in-person version of targeted online ad campaigns.
“I think this is exactly where marketing is heading, if it’s not already there,” said Jonathan Mendoza, former 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.” [Related article: How to Be a Good Manager]
Ultimately, the ability to advertise and target products to shoppers in real time will be increasingly common in modern marketing, a tool used not just by big corporations, but also by small entities. Consumers want to feel seen and be given exactly what they’re looking for almost instantaneously, and facial technology is a strong step in that direction, irrespective of the drawbacks.
Max Freedman contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.