Marketers’ dream or another high-tech distraction?

As if texting in cars wasn’t bad enough, drivers may soon be faced with another distraction when they’re behind the wheel – in-car marketing.

According to a report in on-line magazine Marketing Land, cars are about to become the next mobile target for marketing, and it promises to distract us in a number of ways.

Targeted billboards

For starters there are digital billboards which are going interactive. Ads that are synchronised to changing traffic speeds are just the beginning of it. A London-based company, Ocean, has invented technology that picks up the licence plate of cars stopped at red lights, matches it to a public database, then flashes up a message directly targeting it on a nearby billboard.

Not to be outdone, two Japanese companies, Cloudian and Dentsu, have teamed up to create a system that can recognize several hundred passing cars by makes, models and years. Digital billboards can now target vehicles, or groups of them, with car-specific advertising. Already there’s been a digital billboard at Melbourne airport that recognises Porsches and displays the message “It’s so easy to pick you out of a crowd” whenever one drives by.

In-car messaging

Then there’s in-car messaging. It already exists on your smartphone when you’re using navigation and up pops suggestions for cafes, restaurants and other things. Californian company Iota Labs is promising to personalise that through “dots” – little Bluetooth beacons that connect with your smartphone and tell it to open up location-specific apps that are relevant to your life wherever you are. So when you step into your car you could be instantly reminded to pick up milk and a loaf of bread and told where you can buy it. Handy? Perhaps. Distracting? Probably.

Mapping information like traffic jams can already be picked up by your phone and connected by Bluetooth to your car’s sound system, giving you voice directions and perhaps even targeted ads to divert your attention from the road.

Cars as marketing tools

Marketing Land says the next step is making the car itself a marketing tool. Modern cars can be tracked by the manufacturers, which know the specifics of the car and its owner. That’s already happening with a number of manufacturers. In theory there’s nothing to stop marketers using the information about where you are, matching it with your spending behaviour at the time and adding it to a profile of your other behaviour gained from website browsing.

Now you might be thinking “well, at least that’s not distracting,” but you’d be wrong. Because there’s nothing to stop marketers using that information to thrust highly contextualised marketing right onto your car’s dashboard, or perhaps a head-up display, as you’re driving.

As Marketing Land comments “And that’s where it gets tricky, of course, since this isn’t a screen on a desk or a phone in someone’s hand as they sit in a restaurant. It’s a display in the front of a sizable chunk of metal hurtling down a road, carrying very vulnerable human freight.”

In the absence of totally autonomous vehicles the potential for distraction followed by disaster is very real and the obvious question is where is all this going to end? Do we leave it to the free market to self-regulate the degree of distraction behind the wheel, or should the government take a hand in regulating how many distractions we see and hear while driving.

Time will tell, but in the meantime keep your eyes on the road and your hands upon the wheel.

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