Moral ambiguity, thy name is advertising. How are we to parse this advertising campaign in London in which an intelligent bus stop billboard only displays its content to women? You read correctly: the billboard has a camera that scans passersby and if one stops to look, it determines their sex and shows them a 40-second video if they are female. Males only get a link to the advertiser’s website.
Now, does it change things if the advertiser is Plan UK, a non-profit organization trying to raise money toward the education of girls in third-world countries? And they don’t show men because they wanted to give them “a glimpse of what it’s like to have basic choices taken away”? Whether you find this commendable or reprehensible, you have to admit that the technology and implications are more than a little interesting.
TechCrunch isn’t really the venue for the discussion of gender politics, so we’ll abstract this one level and look at the campaign from another angle. First, the installation costs £30,000 for a two-week placement, so it’s not like these are going to start appearing on every street corner. And the system claims a 90 percent accuracy rate, a figure that is perhaps optimistic. The 10 percent of people mistaken for the opposite sex will be somewhat unhappy.
Incidentally, here’s the video that 90 percent of females and 10 percent of males will see:
But think about the possibilities if you aren’t using some sensitive information as your content arbiter. What if you load up a hundred videos of people in different outfits, and then match that to whatever the person viewing the ad is wearing? “Nice red blazer. But we like this one better. Only $25 at H&M.” Or perhaps an advertisement aimed at people with children or holding babies.
In this case, the ad’s form of tailoring the experience is to exclude people. Useful for making a statement, but not so much for driving sales or donations.
One thing is sure: this particular campaign is going to raise hell, and the companies behind it are going to be answering calls and emails for months. Plan UK’s CEO, Marie Staunton, says:
Millions of girls across the globe are being denied the right and choice to have an education. This ad is a deliberate attempt to raise public debate on this issue. Although we’re not giving men and boys the choice to see the full ad on this occasion – so we get a glimpse of what it’s like to have basic choices taken away – boys and men play a vital role in helping girls to be all they can be.
It may also raise public debate on the nature of advertising. That’s probably a good thing, considering ads have been more or less the same since they first gained traction in the 19th century. Sometimes a controversy like this is a powerful way of moving things forward.
You can learn more about the campaign here and donate if you like — or give the organization some feedback.