How Has Advertising Lived Up to 'Minority Report'?

Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report” is a favorite in the online advertising world. The 2002 movie, loosely based on a Philip K. Dick short story, is cited at industry conferences the world over as an example of what’s now possible thanks to the collision of tech and media. It’s also how many in the industry describe what they do for a living at Thanksgiving dinners and to their in-laws, we suspect.

“The reality is these technologies are not coming in 2054; the technologies are here now,” said Whaleshark Media’s John Faith onstage at a conference last year, while he clicked his way through a PowerPoint deck of screen grabs from the movie as innumerable ad execs had done before him.

Ad technology has come a long way in the past few years, particularly online. But we examined the movie to decide for ourselves just how many of its predictions are a reality today.

Ad targeting
lexusThe “Minority Report” scene that has the ad world salivating most is the one in which the main character John Anderton (Tom Cruise) strolls through a mall and gets bombarded with ads that mention him by name, implying they’ve been targeted specifically to him.

Anderton is shown ads for Lexus and Guinness, presumably because he has signaled interest in buying those brands or because he is male and has an expensive jacket — that much isn’t explained. Anderton is then shown an American Express ad that recognizes the fact that he is an existing member, simply by scanning his eyes as he walks past.

In the online world, this type of targeting is now commonplace. Advertisers use all sorts of data to target their messages to specific types of users, including financial and demographic information, context and location, and users’ previous behaviors. The difference is online ad companies usually recognize potential targets using their cookies, not their actual eyeballs.

When it comes to offline advertising, it’s a different story, however. Data might be helping advertisers place their out-of-home ads in slightly more appropriate places, but they’re not targeted to specific people. Try standing in Times Square and counting the ads and brands you see that have no relevance to you whatsoever.

Dynamic ad creative
personalizedThe idea of dynamic creative is closely tied to targeting. If you’re targeting a person based on their individual tastes and preferences, why not show them an ad that appeals to those specific attributes, too?

Ads in “Minority Report” appear to do just that. “The road you’re on, John Anderton, is the one less traveled,” a Lexus billboard whispers at him as he passes. It’s unclear if the visual element of the ads is supposedly dynamic, or just the audio. Either way, the ads are literally speaking specifically to him.

The online ad industry has figured this one out, too. Ads might not address you by name, but the creative is often tailored to specific users based on their tastes, behaviors and demographic information. It’s no accident the pair of shoes you considered purchasing end up chasing you around the Internet for weeks, and not just an ad for the site you viewed them on.

Once again, things are somewhat different in the offline world as they stand today. Out-of-home ad creative is forced to be generic because there’s no way to switch it out for specific consumers, or even on specific days. That’s beginning to change, however. One recent campaign by Mini used digital billboards to target Mini drivers with personalized messages, for example. The catch? Those messages were written by humans who relied on other humans to tell them when a Mini was approaching. Not very high-tech, and not very scalable.

In-store CRM:
crmAt one point in the movie Anderton visits the Gap, which recognizes consumers as they enter the store and asks if they enjoyed their prior purchases.

This type of technology has been commonplace for online retailers for years. Amazon, for example, goes to great lengths to customize the products you see based on your previous purchases and items you’ve demonstrated an interest in. Brands regularly email customers to ask if they are happy with their purchases.

That rarely happens in the physical world. When customers walk into a Gap store today, the company has no idea who they are or what they may be likely to buy. This, too, is beginning to change. Tech vendors like Shopkick are experimenting with ways to recognize customers using their smartphones and to automatically send them personalized discounts, recommendations and rewards as they enter or walk past a store. Other location-based apps like Foursquare have been offering location-based deals for years.

Facial recognition
facialThroughout the movie, consumers are recognized by their eyes. Scanners on digital billboards and within stores scan users’ retinas and show them personalized content as a result.

Luckily, this isn’t happening today. Younger generations might be more laid back about privacy than their predecessors, but that doesn’t mean they want their identities tracked as they wander around the mall.

That said, some companies are already experimenting with facial recognition technology in the real world and using it to tailor ad messages based on gender and age information. U.K. retailer Tesco, for example, is using it to help serve relevant ads to consumers while they wait in line to pay.

Here’s the ad section of the movie: