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Facial Recognition: Cutting-Edge or Creepy?

How much is too much? It’s the pervasive question in a time when much of our personal activity is converted into analytical data, whether we’re aware or not. Every social media account we’re a part of, every Google search we’ve performed, and every order we’ve placed online, is cached and stored. The idea of our digital footprints being tracked is a turn-off for some, but daily online transactions wouldn’t happen as seamlessly as they would’ve, otherwise. Our behaviors dictate our online personas, and everyone from marketers to Uncle Sam want voyeuristic peeks into our trackable habits– albeit, as a means to their own ends.

So it comes as no surprise that, at the mere mention of facial recognition, even the most social media-active of us can get a little squeamish…

Face It

Hollywood’s done a good job of showing how prevalent its use might be in the future, with movies like Minority Report using it for everything from advertising, to policing, to home security.

Facebook’s been using the technology for tagging photos which may (or may not) feature your face and government agencies already use it for security, research, and fighting crime. Other uses range from finding lost children, to sizing a pair of glasses, to image searches. When it comes to marketing, however, many think the technology gets a little too… nosey.

Are we overly concerned with the potential invasiveness of the technology, or is it just another step towards a more seamlessly connected Internet of Everything? That answer depends on who you ask; for brands, it’s a potential goldmine of data and perhaps the greatest advancement in hyper-personalization to date.

You’ll find an especially creative use of the tech in outdoor advertising, where cameras detect faces and display ads customized to specific viewers. While it seems gimmicky, it drastically improves the targeting of a billboard or bus ad, which encounters a rather large cross-section of the population at any given time. This is especially useful when a brand feels the need to either focus its message on a specific demographic, or outright exclude another.

Traditional outlets like TV have recently made use of facial recognition tech, as well. When applied to a focus group situation, a company like Nielsen used it to test an audience’s genuine reaction to content. While surveys and written responses are subject to external influence and human indecision, facial recognition offers solid, more accurate responses; your answers may be unconsciously skewed a certain way, but skin, sweat, eye movements, and biometrics tell no lies. This kind of testing can get as specific as where a viewer’s eye rested the longest. As invasive as it seems now, it’s not hard to imagine a future where Nielsen prototypes a TV with a built-in camera that tracks the subtle gestures and movements of muscles in the face.

A similar idea can be applied to online content, as most desktops, laptops, and mobile devices have a webcam of some sort. Virgin Mobile’s Blinkwashing campaign utilized the tech to deliver a pick-your-own-ending video, which operated via the viewer’s camera. The plot’s navigation depended on one’s blinks getting tracked by the camera, and not only engaged, but encouraged participation with the content– a far cry from just watching and waiting for the “skip ad” button.

Facial recognition tech is slowly gaining traction in social media and email marketing as well. Sure, checking in on Facebook at a given location will get you a few likes– but physically checking in? That can now earn you personalized deals and discounts. Besides using facial recognition for face-tagging, Facebook has now made it possible to incorporate platforms and apps that connect to in-store cameras equipped with the tech. Recognizing your face upon entrance into said location, customized deals are automatically sent directly to your mobile device. Your purchase history, coupled with a Facebook app like Facedeals, will make being a regular pay off in droves. Another added benefit of facial recognition cameras is the ability for businesses to digitally track cash transactions. While this obviously requires the patron’s permission, it brings the cycle of customer data collection full-circle.

The uncertainty and privacy concerns can be forgiven; society as a whole isn’t prepared to have such high levels of transparency embedded this deep into their private lives, tracking their consumption habits. Still, even the most paranoid of us may be open to some sort of balance: a survey reported that 75% of respondents were opposed to facial recognition being used for remarketing purposes, yet 55% of the same group were okay with it, as long as they received a coupon of some sort. It begs the question: does the creepy factor wear away once we start seeing its benefits? Walking the tightrope between invasive and valuable will be key for any brand choosing to incorporate the technology into their next marketing initiative.