One-Way-Mirror Society: Consumer Responses to Digital Signage and Privacy Issues

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Few consumers are aware that watching a video screen or interacting with a kiosk may mean they are being recorded and having their behavior, gender, age, and ethnicity analyzed. As a result, there has not been a robust public discussion of how consumers feel about these technologies.

However, some academic literature does exist. In a 2008 University of Rotterdam study, focus groups of mixed gender with an average age of 28.6 years old were queried about a digital signage use case that allowed behavioral targeting of ads using an automated recommendation system in a similar to’s and other online retailers, but tailored for digital signage technologies deployed in brick-and-mortar retail settings. The focus groups, which drew from the EU and from the US, came up with multiple objections relating to privacy, including the following problems with the digital signage recommendation system:

  • General privacy problems
  • Showing private information
  • Information of other people on the screen
  • Don’t be too personal
  • Don’t link buyer behavior and advertising [73]

The research concluded that regarding digital signage, the “biggest objections seem to be related to privacy and unnecessary or wrong recommendations.” [74] The strongest consumer objections to the digital signage recommendation screens came when a recommendation on the digital signage screen showed the following items, roughly in order of the strength of objections from the focus groups:

  • A picture of the person
  • The person’s name
  • Previous purchases
  • The product the consumer had in their hand
  • Product recommendations based on a stored profile. [75]

Consumers had substantially fewer privacy issues with the screens showing a top 10 list of best-selling products, similar products based on what was in their basket, or with product recommendations based on the average customer comparable to that consumer. [76]

There was no difference in acceptance of the digital signage recommendation system between a younger audience (below 30) and an older audience (above 30). The research also found that even though the digital signage use case that was presented to the focus groups used “non-identifying information,” the group perceived it as privacy-invasive, and wanted to be in control. One suggestion flowing from the research was to allow digital signage recommendation screens to be consumer initiated, versus automatically targeted. [77]

These findings were echoed by a 2009 University of California, Berkeley – University of Pennsylvania, Annenberg School for Communication study that found that a majority of Americans – 68 percent — strongly rejected behavioral tracking online. The UC Berkeley – Annenberg study is in line with the Rotterdam study in finding that young consumers cared about privacy.

In the UC Berkeley – Annenberg study, 86 percent of young adults said they did not want tailored advertising if it resulted from following behavior on website other than one they are visiting. Fully 90 percent rejected tracking if it is the result of following what they do offline. [78]

The University of Rotterdam findings seen in light of the high rejection rate for offline tracking suggest digital signage systems that track consumer behavior may be perceived as even more invasive than online tracking delivered via the web. When a person is standing in front of a digital screen in person, what consumers are comfortable with appears to shift toward a preference for more privacy controls, rather than less. The opt-in / opt-out debate will likely have a different outcome in the digital signage context given the potentially stronger consumer attitudes toward privacy protection in this area.






[73] Imran Ashraf, RFID as a marketing tool, a strategic and economic analysis. Combining RFID, Digital Signage, and Recommender Systems., 21 Feb. 2008, Dissertation, Rotterdam School of Economics, Erasmus University Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Chart, p. 65. See also generally Chapter 5.

[74] Id.

[75] Some digital signage installations have already experimented with showing people’s pictures on screens that are publicly viewable. For example, Permanent TSB, a retail bank in Dublin, Ireland, used a digital signage installation that took pictures of people passing by the bank and superimposed the person’s picture on a credit card graphic that was then shown on the digital signage in the bank window. Is Demonstrating Big Brother Really Necessary? Adrian J. Cotterill, June 14, 2008, <>. The article contains an image of the digital signage installation.
[76] Id,

[78], Chart Privacy Aspects, and Figure 17.

[77] Id, 127.

[78] Turow, Hoofnagle, King et al. Contrary to what marketers say, Americans Reject Tailored Advertising and three activities that enable it. September, 2009. < >.



Roadmap: The One-Way-Mirror Society – Privacy Implications of the new Digital Signage Networks: V. Consumer Responses to Digital Signage and Privacy Issues


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