Bus stops that read your face? Plan UK takes a risk

21 Feb 2012 Voices

Plan UK is trailblazing facial recognition in a new bus stop advert for its 'Because I’m a Girl' campaign. Celina Ribeiro applauds a charity on the bleeding edge.

Plan UK is trailblazing facial recognition in a new bus stop advert for its 'Because I’m a Girl' campaign. Celina Ribeiro applauds a charity on the bleeding edge.

Plan UK deserves a slow clap, asymmetrical smile and prolonged rise to a standing ovation for a campaign that could be a total fizzer.

That trifecta of admiration is demanded by its launch, tomorrow, of . That is, a working bus stop parked outside Selfridges on Oxford Street in London which will use facial recognition software to determine whether its viewer is male or female, and then tailor its message accordingly as part of its ‘Because I am a Girl’ campaign. Male viewers will have their content restricted, highlighting the fact that women and girls around the world routinely have their choices restricted as a result of their gender. Female viewers will be able to watch a 40-second advert, complete with sound and touch screen technology.

This is bold stuff. A first for any kind of advertiser in the UK and hopefully the last time elements of a Tom Cruise movie (Minority Report) become reality.

This multi-sensory, interactive, time-and-place sensitive advertising is as exciting to an advertiser as it is novel and, after a few seconds thought, kinda creepy to consumers.

Good on Plan UK. This isn’t the first time they’ve tried to bring 'Because I’m a girl' right into people’s faces as it were. Late last year they launched a Facebook app which transposed the viewers Facebook history into an experience which compared their lives to that of girls born in less equal and wealthy parts of the world. This kind of behaviour - experimental, fleet of foot, innovative, risk-taking, engaging with technology - is so much against the often too-safe campaigning tactics of larger charities, that I just have to love it.

The 'Because I’m A Girl' campaign is aiming to raise £40m by June 2016 and the ‘Choices for Girls’ awareness drive of the campaign, of which this interactive advert is a part, aims to raise £250,000 over its four-month lifespan. The bus stop ad will ask viewers to text a £3 donation or they can scan a QR code. Plan UK has funded the experiment bus stop ad itself, which is a brave thing to do.

Shock horror – it’s not a sure bet!

Brave, particularly, because there are things that could go wrong.

Firstly - You read my face! For me, reading my face comes just ever so slightly close to reading my mind. Physically close. I mean my face is just a couple centimetres from my brain, man! But a Plan UK spokeswoman assures me that because the ad is ‘opt-in’ – viewers are told to stand in a certain place if they want their features scanned – there are no real privacy issues at play.

And what if it guesses wrong? A female, often dishevelled, friend of mine briefly worked the till at a supermarket while at university. On a couple of occasions the lanky young woman was appalled to hear diligent parents scold their children to ‘say thank you to the nice young man’. Remembering her mortification, I can assure you getting a woman’s gender wrong is no way to make friends. (Apparently the technology guesses right nine times out of ten).


Yes, there is a potential creep-out factor. However consumers – although we whine - are increasingly familiar with advertising that is getting increasingly familiar with us as individuals. The question over the next five years is going to be: how much intrusion will we, the public, swallow?

But, if it proves that people will be amused and comfortable with this kind of technology, perhaps sometime in the all too near future a bus stop advertisement may well be able to read whether I am happy. Or sad. Or indeed if I have an armful of shopping bags. I imagine a 1984-style voice looming over me as I wait for the Number 91 asking whether I really did need another pair of jeans, and had I thought about allocating just a fraction of my wardrobe budget towards workers rights in the developing world’s denim manufacturing heartland.

Clearly, Plan UK’s courage helps to pave the way of those behind the immersive advert – Clear Channel, 2D Exposure and CURB Media – to test a technology with a warm fuzzy sell (who could get angry at helping women in the developing world?), before using it to flog us sneakers,  perfume, cars and – worse yet – politics. They can test the technology, public receptiveness using the warm glow of charity before hitting us up with all-consuming consumerism.

Do I care? Well, yes, a bit. But mostly it’s just pretty exciting to see a charity really push the boat out. Don’t ya think?



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