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Plugged in: how outdoor advertising and surveillance technology promote commercial behaviours

In this blog, part of the Bad Publicity series, we draw on Dr Thomas Dekeyser’s 2018 essay The material geographies of advertising’ to understand how surveillance technologies enable outdoor advertising to more effectively integrate into the urban environment, increasing its capacity to affect our behaviours in line with advertisers’ intentions. 

Outdoor advertising, according to a recent report by ad industry body Outsmart, is a “neutral medium” that “mirrors what’s going on in the wider world. It reflects, it represents, it relates.”

The reality is that outdoor advertising is engaged in a constant battle to make itself relevant in the ever-changing and dynamic environment of the street, with ad companies deploying increasingly sophisticated surveillance technologies in a bid to integrate their advertising into the street in a way that cannot be ignored. 

The challenge of outdoors

Outdoor advertisers boast of the reach of their medium, with the biggest companies reaching 90+ percent of the population each week. 

However, there arises a contradiction: the more people you reach with a message the less likely it is that the message will be relevant to any given person. With ads intended to drive viewers to certain actions, most notably making a purchase, this excess of reach over audience is a problem. 

In addition to this, outdoor advertising has to contend with other aspects of the great outdoors. Weather is an obvious example – fewer people will pass an outdoor ad in the rain – as is the action of subvertisers who may act to prevent an ad having its intended effect. 

Dekeyser: “The encounter between an advertising object and its environment is often marked by what, in the eyes of advertisers, is perceived as a relation of incompatibility. These are the excessive moments when an advertising object encounters its more-than-human environment in ways that are not productive of a commercially-relevant outcome: an advertising message reaches an irrelevant audience member (what the industry calls ‘wastage’), a car crashes into a bus stop shelter, heavy wind blows rip a poster loose, a passer-by writes onto a billboard with a paint marker, or humidity disrupts a digital advert.”

“Wastage arises when an advertisement is not seen by the specified target audience: a billboard reaches people with the wrong gender, people in the wrong age-group, people with the wrong income, and so forth”.

Overcoming wastage

Advertisers are always seeking ways to overcome this wastage. Digital billboards and ad screens are today fitted with an array of technologies to adapt the ads shown to the weather at the precise location of the ad, matching messages to the needs of passers-by. 

Dekeyser writes how increasingly responsive ads overcome the indifference of passers-by by making the ad surprising and relatable: 

“Image-recognition hardware and software are concerned with indifferent human bodies, anti-hacking features engage resistant human bodies and thermal management systems respond to extreme weather conditions.”

He cites an example of a Renault ad campaign from 2016 that utilised number plate recognition software to display personalised ads to drivers such as “Hey, you in the silver hatchback” before showing a more general advert once the viewer’s attention was captured. 

However, the ad, although responsive, was still limited by its lack of knowledge concerning: “a rich and important swath of social, cultural, mental, material and economic dimensions that influence the driver’s susceptibility remain outside of the grasp of image-recognition technology: what is the passer-by thinking or desiring at this very moment? Where is she or he coming from? Did she or he just lose their job or gained purchasing power? Are they hungry or cold?”

This inadequacy is increasingly being addressed by the ad industry. 


“Concretisation comes at the cost of converting public spaces into spaces of surveillance and commercialisation.”

Dekeyser draws on Gilbert Simondon’s notion of Concretisation, defined as “a process of making-compatible a technological object and its environment by allowing them to interact in new ways through a series of technological advancements.”

So a digital billboard with image-recognition, heat sensors, vandal proof casings and so on is highly concretised in comparison to, say, a simple poster pasted on a board.

Dekeyser: “As such, concretisation renders urban space ever more commercially compatible with advertising objects. In establishing a responsive relation to the incompatibilities of urban space, and therefore in becoming capable of aligning itself more carefully with the particularities of urban life, concrete outdoor advertising objects hold significant control over their affective affordance”

Where “affect” refers to the “active creation of relations” through which passers-by are made to become compatible with the intentions of the advert (to wit: selling you something).

This process of concretisation was confirmed in research conducted by the ad industry last year which linked outdoor ads to location-based internet searches and encouraged dynamic advertising adapted to factors such as location, time and weather in order to drive internet searches, which in turn indicate “consumer needs”.

At what cost?

This concretisation comes at the cost of converting ostensibly public spaces into spaces of surveillance and commercialisation.

Dekeyser: “As of 2018, Clear Channel has installed 2000 Adshel Live bus shelter spaces with image-recognition technology in the United Kingdom. Similarly, InLinkUK has introduced almost a hundred advertising spaces which comprise three cameras each. Broader information on the usage of image-recognition in the United Kingdom and beyond is not widely available. This makes it hard to judge the total number of advertising spaces globally that hold the possibility for image-recognition, and even harder to evaluate how many are actively in operation.”

In recent years, this shift towards surveillance has continued apace.

In order to directly target ads at those passers-by most likely to engage, adverts now monitor the passer-by with cameras capable of facial recognition to “measure audience sentiment with pinpoint accuracy” as one ad company boasts. 

Other ad data companies provide services to map ad locations against other data on, for instance, traffic and travel patterns, whilst Clear Channel UK’s RADAR data gathering software uses the stored data of millions of people to map ad locations most suited to targeting different demographics. 

In an interview in 2020, Clear Channel UK’s Commerical Innovation Director, Andy Stevens, said: “Using RADAR, a clothing brand could identify the best Clear Channel panels to reach 18-34-year old women who shop at high-street fashion brands, or a pram manufacturer could find the best panels to reach parents who recently visited a department store.”

Towards a politics of outdoor advertising

“Outdoor advertising is not a neutral medium but is a fundamentally political one.”

All this serves to make outdoor advertising ever more efficient at pushing us along paths towards certain behaviours. 

Dekeyser: “This shift in relations to urban space is politically compelling: outdoor advertising becomes more proficient at pushing bodies along paths that lead to profitable ways of relating to certain products, brands, people, images, words, ideas.”

This is clearly of concern if those behaviours include buying harmful products. Harmful to the individual, such as alcohol and gambling products; harmful to society and the planet in the case of polluting products like SUVs and flights. 

Further, as Dr Amy Isham notes in her contribution to this series, advertising is prone to foster materialistic values within its audience, at the expense of more extrinsic values like caring for others and the environment. Ultimately, what Thomas Dekeyser’s research shows us is that outdoor advertising, contrary to the claims of the ad industry, is not a neutral medium. It actively intervenes in its environment, shaping as it is shaped by external forces, with the aim of altering the behaviours of passers-by, and as such is a fundamentally political medium to be engaged with accordingly.

This guest blog is part of the Bad Publicity series, in which academics in fields from public health to surveillance, degrowth and behaviour change explore the ways in which advertising intersects with pressing contemporary social and political issues.

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