Senator questions plan to tailor billboards based on cell phone data

By Mark Schremmer, Land Line staff writer | 3/4/2016

If you feel as if the billboards you pass on the highway are designed for your specific wants and needs, it may be because they are. Clear Channel Outdoor Americas, which has tens of thousands of billboards across the United States, announced this past week the launch of a system that will use mobile location data from leading providers to tailor billboards toward people’s travel patterns and interests.

The announcement prompted Minnesota Sen. Al Franken to raise concerns about potential privacy issues.

According to the Clear Channel Outdoor website, the “radar” system allows businesses to use customers’ location visits, online behaviors and television viewing to create the best ad campaigns for a given audience.

The company describes Clear Channel Outdoor Radar as “a suite of research, data and analytics tools to help advertisers and agencies more effectively plan and buy out-of-home media to reach specific target audiences and measure the impact of their campaigns.”

Data breaks customers into nine audience segments — sports, finance, auto intender, movie buff, fashionista, electronics, moms, QSR visitor and home improvement — and lets businesses know which areas receive the most traffic from each category. It also could determine the average age and gender of those who pass the billboard.

Clear Channel Outdoor spokesman Jason King said the new advertising concept isn’t as sensational or invasive as portrayed in a recent New York Times article.

“The billboards can’t see you, nor do they have cameras mounted on them to see you,” King said. “Nothing has been added to the billboard. The billboard is the same as it was last week. What we’re doing with radar is taking aggregated and anonymous data from third-party providers and applying that contextual and categorical information to our inventory. All we get from our third-party provider are categories of general demographics such as soccer moms, age 35-45 with no individual or personal information. It just tells us based on the location of your billboard, there’s a higher concentration of soccer moms that travel by these boards.”

The information does provide Clear Channel Outdoor evidence for the effectiveness of its billboards by learning the percentage change in number of store visits and viewing tendencies of those exposed to the advertising.

“In aggregate, that data can then tell you the information about what the average viewer of that billboard looks like,” Andy Stevens, senior vice president for research and insights at Clear Channel Outdoor, told the New York Times. “Obviously that’s very valuable to an advertiser.”

Stevens went on to tell the Times that the technology “does sound a bit creepy,” but also said the company was using the same data that mobile advertisers have been using for years.

Franken sent a letter to Clear Channel CEO Scott Wells last week to address the issue.

“I am concerned about the extent to which Clear Channel may be collecting Americans’ personal information, including sensitive location data and sharing that information without people’s knowledge or consent,” wrote Franken, the top Democrat on the Privacy and Technology Subcommittee. “I believe Americans have a fundamental right to privacy, and that right includes an individual’s access to information about what data are being collected about them, how the data are being treated, and with whom the data are being shared.”

Franken included nine questions in his letter and requested that Clear Channel respond by March 30.

Clear Channel Outdoor plans to first offer the radar billboards to its 11 largest markets before expanding across the nation before the end of the year.

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