Media Perspective: Brands must tread carefully around the issue of targeting

A correspondent e-mailed last week to suggest that now all this Urban Spam is fading away, we need to start worrying about contextual targeting; that this is the next seemingly brilliant industry practice that might merely be a false promise to clients and annoying to our audiences.

I suspect he's right; I also bet that contextual targeting when combined with screens in the street is going to be even worse. And, as luck would have it, the clever people at Castrol have provided us with an illuminating example. It has been running an ingenious campaign on the web for a while - you type in your car's number plate, they interrogate the DVLA database, discover what make of car you have and recommend the kind of oil you should be using. Very smart.

It recently extended this into an outdoor campaign using a roadside camera to read number plates and flash the recommended oil type and the associated number plate on to an electronic poster (you can see a demo if you go to Also ingenious, also smart. But somewhere, somehow, a line has been crossed. Because lots of people found this intrusive, disturbing and Big Brother-ish. They didn't like the fact that some random corporation now had a record of where they were at a particular time.

Castrol could very clearly state that it wasn't keeping the data, but it made people uncomfortable. This sort of thing just does. And the unease led to questions being asked, which revealed some murkiness about whether the DVLA had actually sanctioned this activity. The ins and outs of which needn't concern us now because this isn't about what's actually legal or allowable, this is about how people feel. And many things that brands are now able to do technologically, and within their terms of service, just don't feel right to people.

There's a big and definite difference between volunteering data on a website and having it extracted from you as you drive along the street or surf around the web. The marketing dream is to transform consumer data into super-relevant, super-targeted information, and we assume consumers will love that too. In some instances, they probably will. But I suspect, in many more instances, we'll merely freak them out by revealing either a) how much we know about them, or b) how much we've completely misunderstood them.

This is bad enough on the web - there have already been mild backlashes against Facebook's crude contextual advertising - but it's really going to trouble people when we're extracting data from their phones and beaming it to public poster sites. Digital marketers are used to operating in the semi-private sphere of the web and people's computers, but doing this kind of thing in public is a very different matter.