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Advertising Company Will Use Its Billboards To Track Passing Cellphones

Traffic passes the giant animated billboard on the facade of the Marriott Marquis Hotel, in New York's Times Square.
Richard Drew
Traffic passes the giant animated billboard on the facade of the Marriott Marquis Hotel, in New York's Times Square.

Clear Channel Outdoor — one of the largest outdoor advertising companies in the U.S. — is starting a new program called Radar that will use billboards to map real-world habits and behaviors from nearby consumers.

The technology is sure to help advertisers better target their ads. But privacy advocates argue that it's, well, a little creepy.

This is how Clear Channel Outdoor describes how the program works, in a video on its website:

"Using anonymous aggregated data from consumer cellular and mobile devices, RADAR measures consumer's real-world travel patterns and behaviors as they move through their day, analyzing data on direction of travel, billboard viewability, and visits to specific destinations. This movement is then mapped against Clear Channel's displays, allowing advertisers to plan and buy Out-Of-Home to reach specific behavioral audience segments."

Clear Channel's Senior Vice President of Research and Insights Andy Stevens says "it's like mobile advertising, using the same consumer behavior, but using it for [Out-Of-Home ads like billboards.]" In an interview with Media Village, he says he sees it as a way of translating digital insights to this "out of home" space.

But in an email to NPR, Clear Channel press spokesman Jason King drew a distinction between the one-to-one approach of online digital ad targeting and this strategy, which he described as "one-to-many." He explains:

"We have no technical capability to determine the average age and gender of who sees our billboards, but the data providers can inform us by sharing, for example, that I-95 in Florida has a high percentage of families travelling to Disney World that pass many of our billboards."

The company, which owns tens of thousands of billboards in the U.S., "will offer Radar in its top 11 markets, including Los Angeles and New York, starting on Monday, with plans to make it available across the country later this year," The New York Times reported. Here's more from the Times:

"Clear Channel and its partners — AT&T Data Patterns, a unit of AT&T that collects location data from its subscribers; PlaceIQ, which uses location data collected from other apps to help determine consumer behavior; and Placed, which pays consumers for the right to track their movements and is able to link exposure to ads to in-store visits — all insist that they protect the privacy of consumers. All data is anonymous and aggregated, they say, meaning individual consumers cannot be identified."

King, the press spokesman, tells NPR that the personal consumer information will remain with the data providers, while Clear Channel will only be able to access the aggregated data.

And Stevens argues that consumers can opt out, in the interview with Media Village. He makes a distinction between the Clear Channel program and the advertising in this scene from the dystopian thriller "Minority Report."

Here, Tom Cruise's character walks through a shopping area as advertisements address him by name. "John Anderton! You could use a Guinness right now," says one affable billboard. "Get away, John Anderton. Forget your troubles," intones another billboard showing a beach scene. Here's what Stevens thinks of this style of advertising:

"I'm not sure it's a great user experience and it is a little creepy, to be honest. With a mass-medium like Out-Of-Home, a better use is to target general patterns of consumer groups, not the individual."

But regardless of whether the billboards will address us personally, the new initiative is raising concerns from privacy advocates like Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. "It is incredibly creepy, and it's the most recent intrusion into our privacy," he told The Times. "People have no idea that they're being tracked and targeted."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.