Driver Distraction Alert: Like Google Ads, But With Billboards

October 1, 2009
Empty billboard

Empty billboard

Targeted ads on the Internet—for a product related to what you're reading about—are one thing. But what about targeted ads on billboards, using data about what kind of car you're driving? That's what was tried in the U.K., where motorists were shown ads advising them of the proper Castrol motor oil to use in their vehicle.

And no, the system used in this case wasn't quite smart enough to be able to automatically identify makes and models from sight alone.

One of several issues here is that the ads used vehicle registration data, and the breach has privacy watchdogs up in arms. The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, or DVLA—the U.K. equivalent to what's called the DMV in most U.S. states—denies that the data was sold to Castrol or their ad agency. But according to the London Daily Mail it's apparent that a third-party firm passed the data on to Castrol for the campaign.

Here's how the system worked. A camera grabbed registration numbers from rear plates; those were then referenced back to a database, which cross-referenced details including the make, model, year, and even engine size of the vehicle, delivering the results back to an adjacent billboard in the form of an ad for the recommended grade of Castrol oil for the vehicle.

Then there are the distraction worries—especially timely in light of the crackdowns on texting and the recognition of cognitive distraction as a factor in some accidents. A major safety group in the U.K. called the advertisements 'inappropriate' and cited the greater potential for distraction because the ads are individually targeted.

The two-week ad campaign was shut down by the DVLA on its fourth day, with the DVLA saying that it had not sold or provided Castrol with the personal data. Although car data is released for some purposes (like 'matters of road safety'), personal data is safeguarded, the agency told the Sunday Mail.

Is there any way that this could be legal in the U.S., especially given current distraction concerns? Would it ever be okay for the DMV to sell your info if they removed certain personal information? Or should cameras recording processing information about vehicles on a public highway, for ads, be allowed? Let us know what you think.

[Daily Mail]

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