Q&A

Billboards deliver targeted ads by identifying your car

Advertisers in London, England have developed a new kind of billboard, which changes ads depending on the type of car you drive. Technology columnist Dan Misener looks at what's being called "vehicle recognition technology" — and billboards that look back at you.

Vehicle recognition technology being used in London to tailor ad messages to drivers

Billboards in London using vehicle recognition technology to personalize advertisements. (Ocean Outdoor)

Many drivers have become used to tuning out roadside billboards. But what if those billboards could deliver more personalized messages?

Advertisers in the U.K. have developed a new kind of billboard, which changes ads depending on the type of car you drive.

CBC Radio technology columnist Dan Misener looks at what's being called "vehicle recognition technology" — and billboards that look back at you.

How do these billboards work?

These are large, digital screens, three in a row, each about 12 metres wide and 3.5 metres high. And they have built-in cameras that take photos of nearby traffic.

So if you're stopped at a traffic light near one of these billboards, the camera will capture an image of the front of your vehicle, and computer vision software will identify the type of car you're driving.

And then, based on that information, the billboard will change to show you a message targeted to the kind of person the system thinks you are. So a black convertible might trigger a different ad than a blue hatchback, for example.

The whole process only takes about one second. And the technology has already been rolled out at the Holland Park roundabout in London, with a campaign for the car company Renault.

It's drawn reactions from people like security researcher Ashkan Soltani, who said on Twitter it's like "Minority Report... for you car."

What information can this technology collect?

The current system can tell the make, model and colour of your vehicle. It can tell whether you have a sport model. It can also tell things like whether your car uses gas, diesel or is electric, the age of your car, and the manufacturer's stated CO2 emissions.


Ocean Outdoor is the company that developed this technology. Spokesperson Kevin Henry said the type of car you drive says a lot about you, and it can help advertisers target relevant ads to you.

"We know, for example, drivers of sports cars are more likely to be male under the age of 34," he said. 

"They like taking foreign holidays, and they buy a large amount of luxury goods, and they're interested in telecoms. So you can be quite subtle with the targeting."

But of course, the ads are tailored to the car you're driving, not to you personally. Henry said the vehicle recognition system doesn't collect personal information.

Are there other interactive billboards?

Absolutely. The first example of this I saw was back in 2008, when a billboard in New York City advertised for the A&E miniseries The Andromeda Strain. The billboard had cameras that measured the gender and approximate age of passersby, and how long they looked at the billboard.

More recently, we've seen digital billboards in Toronto's Billy Bishop Airport that look back at you as you pass by them. 

Digital billboards in Toronto's Billy Bishop Airport can use facial recognition technology to tell whether you're looking at the ad. (Black)
At the airport, there's a very long tunnel, lined with 40 digital displays. Each has a camera, and can use facial recognition technology to tell whether you're looking at the ad, and some rough demographic information, like age and gender. 

The company behind the screens, though, stresses that they do not collect any personalized data in the process.

Doesn't this sound a bit invasive?

Ocean Outdoor's Kevin Henry said when you collecting this type of information about people — or their cars — lots of targeting opportunities present themselves.

But he also said advertisers have to be sensitive about how they use this information. 

"The challenge is very much for the creative fraternity to come up with far more subtle and contextual, seamless methods of reaching that consumer," he said.

"You don't need to do the figuratively going up and knocking on somebody's car window and saying, 'Hey you, I know that you're there and I'm talking to you.'"

Does this suggest any broader trends?

There are a couple of things going on here — the computer vision technology that makes vehicle recognition possible, and the dynamic ad technology that lets every car see a slightly different ad.

But for me, the big trend worth watching here is the way offline ads in the physical world are becoming more and more like online ads. The same kind of tracking, targeting and segmentation we've seen for years on the web is now starting to appear in the world around us.

It's unclear whether we'll see Ocean Outdoor's vehicle recognition system here in Canada. Their technology depends heavily on the way license plates work in the U.K.

But I think we're going to see more and more of this general type of thing, where the environment around you is tailored and personalized. 

If you're tired of the same ads following you around online, from website to website — get ready for the same kind of thing in the real world.

About the Author

Dan Misener

CBC Radio technology columnist

Dan Misener is a technology journalist for CBC radio and CBCNews.ca. Find him on Twitter @misener.