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Monday 9 June 2008

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When it’s all boiled down we are all trying to influence and control each other.

In relationships, in families, in business and in politics. Humans are built this way.  To “succeed” in business, politics or war, we need to influence and control others – lots of others.

As marketers we strive to control and influence consumers.  We gauge our “success” in our customers’ sales figures.  We embrace technology that is going to help us achieve results.

Emerging new media pushes us further and further into people’s private lives.  The more digital-dependent the population becomes, the more possible it becomes to get inside people’s heads.

So how far can will we go in pursuit of “success”?

In the middle of the last century George Orwell warned that by 1984 technology could be wielded to achieve total political control.  It could be that the Orwellian nightmare is still brewing.  But perhaps Orwell was looking in the wrong direction.

Should he have been looking at the marketers?

Orwell would not be surprised to learn that Chinese authorities are currently using facial-recognition cameras to compare faces with car registration details (to see who is crossing borders and whether the driver of the vehicle is who it’s supposed to be).

This fits very nicely with Big Brotherly influence.

But he would not have seen developments in Japan where a number of manufacturers (notably NEC and Mitsubishi Electric) are developing technologies that will revolutionise retailing, point-of-sale and sales promotion.

Generally speaking, all these new systems use face-recognition software to glean information from shoppers with or without their consent.

For example, cameras can tell the gender and approximate age of individuals looking through a store window or web page and personalise what’s shown or said based upon this information. Gender analysis is 90 per cent accurate while age prediction is 70 per cent accurate.

The idea is that information extracted from what customers look like can be used to change store layout or to understand why people enter a store without buying.

The most obvious use for this technology is advertising. If a 20-something Japanese male professional walks past a window, an ad for a local fish restaurant could be screened whereas if the window recognises three women in their 40s it might display an ad for a nearby Italian restaurant.

Is this the future? Clearly there are gigantic problems inherent with these technologies. It can easily be argued that this is a gross invasion of privacy, especially if faces are “saved” on a server.

And what’s next? Will computers make predictions about people’s income and propensity to buy based on haircuts, shoes or what clothes they are wearing? Or how about if such information (together with real time location data) is sold to other retailers and individuals are constantly bombarded with personalised messages on walls and windows or via their own mobile phones?

Nikkei Weekly (Japan), 29 October 2007, ‘How old is that face in the window?’ J. Hayakawa and T. Yamaguchi.


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