Clear Channel Uses Billboards to Track Customer Habits

March 4, 2016

In today’s age of targeted advertising, billboards may seem like a holdover from another era. However, these seemingly obsolete roadside ads could bring about one of the latest advancements in mobile marketing. This week the media giant Clear Channel announced a plan to make their tens of thousands of billboards more effective by analyzing location data from smartphones. The idea is to aggregate demographic information about the people who travel by a particular billboard and where they go afterwards. For instance, if a person drives by a billboard for Macy’s, analysts will look to see if that person went to the department store shortly after viewing the ad.

This same technology can also determine the average age and gender of a single billboard’s audience. If all this tracking seems invasive or unnerving, you’re not the only one who feels that way. In fact, a senior vice president of research at Clear Channel admits that the plan “does sound a bit creepy.” Still, the data the company plans to use comes from the exact same sources that mobile advertisers have been using for years. So rather than building up a new tracking database, Clear Channel claims it is “just tapping into an existing data ecosystem.”

For privacy advocates, though, the current system is already bad enough. They claim that many people do not realize their behavior or location is being tracked, although most data miners say that their info comes from people who willingly share it. Privacy advocates also don’t believe claims that all aggregated data is anonymous and that users can opt out at any time. What’s more, consumers could interpret some methods of collecting info as more than “a bit creepy.” For example, a few companies have outfitted street-level billboards with tiny cameras that gather data about people as they walk by. The Federal Trade Commission has also dealt with a number of cases related to mobile tracking. In one instance, the FTC sanctioned a popular flashlight app for failing to inform users that it shared their location with advertisers. High profile cases like these are relatively rare, though, so consumers are advised to be very careful about which apps they download and where they share data.



  1. Should the Federal Trade Commission make more efforts to regulate data mining companies?
  1. In today’s increasingly open society, how important is privacy to you?


 Source: Sydney Ember, “See That Billboard? It May See You, Too,” The New York Times, February 28, 2016. Photo: Max Penn.