Venkata: The next step in invasive advertising is here

The doors at Walgreens are here for you to spend more.

Uma Venkata

A company called Cooler Screens installs screens on freezer doors, like in Walgreens, which monitors customers for their age, gender and “emotional response” in order to present an advertisement that targets that demographic. The screens track body and eye movement, as well as the amount of time a customer looks at particular products. This is not just ad targeting; this is extra ad targeting, in the colloquial sense of the word. 

An important detail is that these doors do not store any information, and the data from those monitored is anonymized anyway. The company uses that to argue it has no responsibility to tell customers they are being watched. 

As you go into a store and see endless advertisements swirl around you in response to your presence, it may be pretty obvious that your sex and age are being harvested. But the bigger deal here is the way it seems we’re choosing to address this is to not address it at all. If we pretend this is normal and that monitoring people this closely is practically the same as a normal paper poster, then that makes it much easier to progress to the next step of privacy invasion for the sake of advertising.

There’s a television show on Netflix you may have heard of called “Black Mirror.” The episodes are unconnected, but the vast majority focus on what normal people do with the futuristic technology that we inch closer to every day. One of these episodes is called “Nosedive.” In this world, your mobility, your housing options and almost everything else, is dictated by your social rating. It has been noted to resemble China’s new proposed social-rating policy, which resembles the episode a little too closely for comfort. Another part of the episode reflects what the Walgreens Cooler Screens are doing: advertisements that change according to the viewer, and people have grown used to it as a consequence. The relentless pursuit of profit and status, on the part of advertiser and consumer in “Nosedive” and in Walgreens, is stark.

Maybe that’s the one thing that truly bothers me about these screens. Everything, and I mean everything, is about money. If, for one day, we put the brakes on the energy we pour into profit and consumption, we could probably solve a lot of problems. But that’s the reality: we live in a world with an economy and infrastructure. 

This problem, to me, is a bit like sushi. If it’s covered in soy sauce and looks like it could be cooked, then I’m fine. If it looks pink and raw, then of course I’m not going to eat that. With advertising, at least Gillette and Nike tried to weave a bit of something greater than money into their business plans. But the eye-tracking freezer doors push it a tad too far. It’s a little too obvious that everything is by and for money. Maybe I’m feeling old, but I like to maintain a glimmer of freedom from this consumption obsession.