Saturday, October 22, 2011

Technology and Convenient Shopping

There's a fine line between offering convenience to shoppers and manipulating them. I'm not sure where that line is drawn -- probably in different places for different people -- but we, the consumers, would have to stop shopping altogether to avoid all the subtle and not so subtle maneuvering that influences us. Because that's an unlikely proposition, all we can do is become aware of what they're coming up with to steer us in the direction they want us to go: the cash register. Here are some of the latest "convenient" ways that we're being encouraged to part with our money:

Mastercard wants to make shopping and paying on your smartphone easier with a soon-to-be-available Google Wallet app: "Utilizing gesture recognition tech, items could be selected on-screen by holding your hand over an item and navigating through the checkout process." Literally, wave your hand and you've got what you want!

WalMart plans to use social media data to figure out how to sell to you. This includes: "Using data from social-media interactions in the neighborhoods around Walmart stores to help determine how to stock them. Providing gift suggestions for your friends and family members based on what they’ve been talking about on Facebook and Twitter. [Sending] alerts from smartphone apps that flag you while you’re shopping in Walmart about products in sync with your social genome." Fortunately, those alerts will be an opt-in choice.

Macy's and Bloomingdale's are already offering shoppers free Wi-Fi and digital receipts. "The brands have also added live chats to their online shopping sites, allowing customer service representatives to provide real-time assistance to customers."

Also, " has launched a new denim fit finder for women powered by fit personalization software. The function allows online shoppers to select a pair of jeans among all of the denim brands offered by using a three-step process based on a customer's body type and style preferences." Now, that's convenient!

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Five Aggressive Advertising Techniques

A thought-provoking update to my previous post about facial recognition software:

"5 Sci-Fi Ad Techniques That Are About to Make Life Creepier," a post on, lists some surprising methods, including facial recognition, that will affect -- or already are affecting -- how advertisers reach us:

1. Ads that literally whisper in your ear
2. Billboards that watch you back
3. Digitally editing product placement into old TV reruns
4. Eavesdropping on your phone calls
5. Eavesdropping through your computer

Notice this startling ad for Amnesty International that's mentioned in category #2; technology can be put to work for non-profits, too.

But have we gone too far? Of course, even if we have, there's no turning back now. Do you think these techniques will make you more susceptible to the ads you see or might your awareness make you resentful of the advertisers? Do you have greater concerns about your privacy? Will you alter your shopping behavior or use of technology now that you know what's going on? Is "1984" almost here?

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Advertising and Facial Recognition Software

Targeted marketing is nothing new. Advertisers always want the most bang for their buck, so gathering information about consumers has been a crucial part of figuring out an effective strategy to get us to spend on a specific product or type of product. "Loyalty programs" that reward shoppers with points or discounted prices on goods and services are probably the most common way to find out who's buying what. Every time you swipe your card at the grocery or drug store, you're not just getting lower prices on your merchandise, you're handing over valuable information to the companies that track your spending. Assuming you filled out the identifying information on your card application honestly, there's a goldmine there: not just what you buy, but where you live, how old you are, maybe even your income bracket. And that information is offered voluntarily buy consumers. What about information that's gathered without consumer knowledge? And what if that information is based on your facial features that identify your sex and your age range? Or even you as an individual?

Facebook had to calm irate users a few months ago when it introduced facial recognition software that could automatically identify friends when you uploaded photos of them onto the social network. People complained about fears of invasion of privacy -- a frequent issue that Facebook has had to address and a rather odd situation considering most users volunteer a huge amount of personal data that can be harvested by the applications they allow to access their profiles. Surely you've noticed that the ads you see are affected by your posts and links, even if you are resolutely app-free.

But how will facial recognition software be used for advertising in a retail setting? From the recent LA Times article by Shan Li and David Sarno: "Picture this: You stop in front of a digital advertising display at a mall and suddenly an ad pops up touting makeup, followed by one for shoes and then one for butter pecan ice cream. It seems to know you're a woman in your late 20s and, in fact, it does. When you looked at the display, it scanned your facial features and tailored its messages to you."

This is not just conjecture about the future; the application is already at work in some locations and companies like Kraft Foods Inc. and Adidas are exploring its use in kiosks, vending machines, and on digital signs. Even trendy bars in Chicago are using it to keep the male/female customer ratio in balance and in a designated age range.

Naturally, privacy advocates are concerned about misuse of the software, for example if individuals are identified and the information is used by insurance companies or the government (some police and national security agencies already use it with mixed results). "What if the government starts compiling a database of everyone who shows up to protests?" asked Marc Rotenberg, executive director of [the nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center]. "There are so many 1st Amendment and human rights concerns. It's a slippery slope."

And yet, most companies just want to use facial recognition to sell us stuff. Will it work? Perhaps. But there's one interesting twist that's come up. In a popular YouTube video, "HP Computers Are Racist," two retail employees test the facial recognition software in their store computer and discover that it recognizes and follows the white employee but not the black one. The black employee jokingly says that this is proof that HP computers are racist. But I happen to know of more than one black person who would observe that this must be the first time that a surveillance technology has been designed that excludes them based on their appearance!

Are you concerned about the use of facial recognition technology that targets ads to you?