Business

hiawatha bray | Tech Lab

When the billboard has a brain

Once in a while, you drive past
a billboard that’s advertising something you’d actually like to buy — a juicy hamburger, comfortable shoes, a better car. It’s as if the advertiser is reading your mind.

And maybe that is exactly what’s happening.

Billboard advertisers are getting inside our heads. For years, they’ve watched with envy as Internet advertisers have learned to precisely target our interests and tastes, by using personal data collected from our Web browsers. Now the billboard guys are assembling their own high-tech toolkits, full of slick and spooky new ways to pry open our wallets.

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If lots of mothers are rolling by, the new billboards will know to skip the motorcycle ad and maybe push the new Disney movie instead.

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The ads that appear on the billboard may depend on the electronic bread crumbs your cellphone leaves behind.

Do you regularly visit a church, a strip club, or the public library? Drive a truck or lecture at Harvard? Give marketers a list of places you regularly visit, and they can accurately guess what you buy.

Your cellphone company has that list, and uses it to deliver targeted cellphone advertising. Make a lot of trips to the library, for instance, and you’ll get pop-up ads for the latest bestsellers.

Now the nation’s largest billboard company, Clear Channel Outdoor Inc., is bringing customized pop-up ads to the interstate. Its Radar program, up and running in Boston and 10 other US cities, uses data AT&T Inc. collects on 130 million cellular subscribers, and from two other companies, PlaceIQ Inc. and Placed Inc., which use phone apps to track the comings and goings of millions more.

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Clear Channel knows what kinds of people are driving past one of their billboards at 6:30 p.m. on a Friday — how many are Dunkin’ Donuts regulars, for example, or have been to three Red Sox games so far this year.

The Radar program crunches the data and sorts them into categories of consumers: sports fans, home improvement buffs, fashionistas, and so on. Advertisers can learn demographic data such as the ages, ethnicities, and income ranges of groups of consumers. From this, Clear Channel can help its clients choose ads that will generate the maximum payoffs.

Radar is a perfect fit for digital billboards, which are basically giant video screens. There are 6,400 digital billboards in the United States (compared with 159,000 standard-sized models and 203,000 units of other varieties), and they can flash a different ad every 10 seconds or so. With Radar, Clear Channel can easily target different audiences at different times. And the company will also use the data to pick the most effective pitches for traditional billboards, the kind that stay in place for days or weeks.

Billboards are a mass medium, so Radar can’t get too personal. Indeed, Clear Channel and AT&T insist they’re aiming at groups of potential buyers, not you personally. They vow that information on individuals is never revealed, especially not names or addresses.

Still, AT&T can use its nationwide network to track individual responses to ads. Say you see a billboard ad for a Big Mac, then go to McDonald’s. Because AT&T provides the Wi-Fi Internet service in McDonald’s restaurants, it can track you going in, and McDonald’s will be informed that its Big Mac ad worked.

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Radar’s pervasive spookiness has alarmed US Senators Al Franken and Charles Schumer, Democrats of Minnesota and New York, respectively, who have called for a federal investigation of Clear Channel’s “spying billboards.”

But that’s not quite right: The billboards themselves don’t track passing cars.

But Lamar Advertising Co. of Baton Rouge, La., has been doing exactly that. In an April campaign for General Motors Corp., Lamar and the digital ad company Posterscope USA tested electronic billboards that can see what kind of car you’re driving — then try to sell you a new one.

The Posterscope system ran in Chicago, Dallas, and parts of New Jersey. It used a high-resolution video camera that can identify the make and model of an oncoming car by looking at its grille. If the vehicle is a Ford Fusion or a Hyundai Sonata or a Toyota Camry, the image on the electronic billboard switches to General Motors’ Chevrolet Malibu, accompanied by a customized sales pitch that may go something like: “The Malibu has more available safety features than your Hyundai Sonata.”

Posterscope insists it poses no threat to privacy. Its software doesn’t capture license plate data, and all images are deleted after a few minutes.

Still, the brainy billboards are a little creepy — a Clear Channel executive used that very word when describing Radar to The New York Times. Perhaps they’re a worrisome reminder that digital surveillance never stops. Even when we’re out on the street, we’re on their radar.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.

Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misstated the number of standard-sized billboards in the United States. There are 159,000 standard models. In addition, there are 6,400 digital billboards and 203,000 units of other varieties.)