The Intelligent In-Store Displays Are Watching You

The famous expression “Big Brother is watching you”, directly taken from George Orwell’s visionary book entitled 1984, written in 1948 and published in 1949, hits the field of marketing one more time. And this time, in-store advertisers are the “evil” marketers involved. In this way, in-store advertisers have started to use facial recognition software incorporated into displays to gather consumers’ information such as gender, age and ethnicity (through skin pigmentation) in order to (with a millisecond lag time) target these consumers with personalized interactive ads. This in-store practice is labeled “ad targeting” and parallels the online commonly used practice of “behavioral targeting”, but in an offline store context. This new practice can also be seen as an extension of the detailed procedure described in the well-acclaimed 1999 business best-seller book “Why We Buy – The Science of Shopping” by Paco Underhill, in which the analyst is hiding near the consumer and noting on a track sheet every single characteristic and movement he, the consumer, makes.

A good visual example of in-store displays that target consumers by personalized ads is illustrated in a scene of Steven Spielberg’s 2002 movie “Minority Report” where the character played by Tom Cruise is a fugitive running through a shopping mall populated by interactive ads targeted directly at him. Real-life examples include, as noted in Emily Steel’s Wall Street Journal article, the American restaurant Dunkin’ Donuts, where people ordering a coffee in the morning are exposed, based on their characteristics, to ads at the cash register promoting, for instance, the chain’s hash browns or breakfast sandwiches. Moreover, this practice has also been used in Japan, where interactive billboards have played the same role for consumer as in-store displays.


The practice of in-store ad targeting is a new dream coming true for marketers, like it was the case for behavioral targeting with the Internet at the beginning of the millenium. However, the most relevant question for managers is how will consumers react to this technology – which can help some consumers save time and money, but which can also be perceived as intrusive by others. If computerized in-store displays are to become part of your everyday life, how would you, as a consumer, react to this new technology?

Jean-Francois Belisle

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