The new digitial displays at Tesco stations will have facial detection software. Photo provided by Tesco.

A chain of gas stations in the UK is installing facial detection screens to display hyper specific ads.

Amscreen and dunnhumby are partnering to install the screens at all 450 Tesco stations in the UK.

Like anyone who’s ever watched a futuristic espionage movie, when I first found out, I assumed that the technology meant they would now be scanning each individual face that walked up to the checkout counter, and then showing ads based specifically on that individual’s shopping habits. 

Crystal Lindell
Crystal Lindell

However, that’s not quite the case. It’s not quite that creepy. (At least not yet).

Instead, the software will only determine the basic demographics of the person looking at the screen, such as gender, age, date, time and volume, according to a media release from Amscreen, the company that created the technology behind the digital screens.

Amscreen says the goal of their OptimEyes software is “help to deliver more measurable campaigns for advertisers, as well as more relevant on-screen content for the Tesco customer.”

Isn’t that always how it goes. Oh, it’s not just about us. We’re also using this technology to help the customer! Don’t you see? This way the customer won’t have to look at boring, non-relevant ads! No, instead, the customer will get to see ads that are perfect for the customer! YAY! Everybody wins!

In a video about the software on the Amscreen website, the company says it addresses privacy concerns by not storing any actual images, but rather by only storing the demographics, such as sex and age.

“It processes the images it sees and instantly converts these into basic, numeric data,” says the video narrator. “The system does not recognize individuals, as it relies on facial detection technology, not facial recognition technology.”

I have to admit that as a customer, on the surface this idea of having facial recognition software at my local gas station is kind of a turn off. But I’m sure I’d get used to it just as fast as I got used to Facebook selling my data to the highest bidder, Google giving the NSA all of my Gmail files from the last seven years, and Twitter selling ads based on my tweets.

What’s really important though is what this means to advertisers.  

The company says the screens are perfect for food courts, convenience stores and gas stations.

“What we’re doing now is offering advertisers real-time insight into campaigns on a nationwide, full-scale basis,” says Simon Sugar ceo of Amscreen. “Having all this real-time data, we can then offer it to our clients... and it allows them modify and change campaigns as they are playing out.”

Amscreen also claims that the data allows them to move ads from one location to another in a matter of minutes so that they are reaching the very best target audience.

“Using our line of face detection software, this is the first time advertisers are able to measure how effective their advertising is in real time,” Sugar says. “We now can tell advertisers who is looking at their adverts, when they’re looking at their adverts, [their] age, and [the] demographics.”

In short, it’s everything John Wanamaker, the father of modern advertising, could have ever dreamed of when he said, “"Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half."

Indeed, marketers are getting closer and closer to figuring out exactly which ads to run to reach exactly who they want to reach.

The question is, when they finally get what they’ve always wanted, will it really be all they hoped for?