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How Digital Billboards Target Passersby (Hint: It's Cellphone Data)


We've come to expect we're being tracked by advertisers online. It's also happening in the physical world with digital billboards. Karen Duffin from NPR's Planet Money podcast went to one of the most iconic advertising locations in the world.

KAREN DUFFIN, BYLINE: I went to the heart of Times Square to look at a billboard with Frank O'Brien, who is the CEO of a marketing software company called Five Tier.

What's on the screen right now?

FRANK O'BRIEN: This looks like a jerk chicken ad placement.

DUFFIN: Using only an app on his cellphone, Frank can make this billboard say anything he wants. And today, he's making it say what we want.

O'BRIEN: So when I hit edit, it will launch as soon as I hit save. And there it is.

DUFFIN: Oh, my God. That's our ad.

Projected from this billboard onto Times Square is the Planet Money logo.

That's magical.

This little magic trick is actually the least of what this billboard can do. This billboard and many other digital billboards are watching you. O'Brien can tell which cellphones are near his billboards. The billboards themselves have sensors, and he also buys location data from cellphone carriers. He syncs that with data he buys about who owns those cellphones, from places like search engines, data aggregators, apps.

So he knows a lot about who sees the ads on his billboards. He knows age, race, gender, credit scores, lifestyle preferences. He knows what you've been doing before; sometimes he even knows what you've been doing before, during and after you look at his billboard.

O'BRIEN: The amount of data that can be pulled in is really infinite at this point. With mobile devices - latitude, longitude, altitude; if someone's in an elevator, changing an ad based on the floor that they're on in the elevator.

DUFFIN: Say you go up to the third floor of a mall, they might know from your Google searches that you've been looking for shoes. So they make the billboard on that floor say shoes are 20% off at Macy's. O'Brien says, don't worry - most of the data is anonymized, unless you've opted in to share your data, which sometimes just happens when you click agree on some terms and services agreement. At that point, he can track you and target ads at you very personally. O'Brien is very excited about this. He says it leads to much more relevant ads. But me - not so much.

Like, I know the ways in which it does make my life easier. But I know that I'm paying a price for it, which is the willingness to allow myself to be monitored most of the - pretty much all day, every day.

O'BRIEN: That's great. It's great to hear. And I think that...

DUFFIN: Wait - why is that great to hear?

O'BRIEN: Because you show an acceptance in some way.

DUFFIN: I mean, it doesn't feel like acceptance to me; it feels like resignation.

O'BRIEN: My God, there you are again with another great question.

DUFFIN: You can't flatter me out of this.


DUFFIN: It's not acceptance; it's like - it is resignation. It's a thing that's going to happen whether or not I like it.

O'BRIEN: And from the cave man days, you know, you can't change if it's going to rain today or if it's going to be sunny tomorrow or - so, OK, I'll agree that - you know, resignation. I concede. But it's the same resignation as, aw, shoot - it's raining outside.

DUFFIN: No because this is in our control. I can't control the rain. Can you control the rain? (Laughter).

He cannot. But if it does rain, his billboards will be happy to tell you about a discount umbrella just around the corner. And if all of this makes you nervous, not excited, you can always change the privacy settings on your cellphone. But the reality is, you're really only as private as your least private app.

Karen Duffin, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE VENTURES' "PIPELINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Duffin (she/her) is a co-host and reporter for Planet Money, NPR's award-winning podcast that finds creative, entertaining ways to make sense of the big, complicated forces that move our economy. She joined the team in March 2018.