Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Seminar 4 Position Statement: Dr Andrew McStay, Bangor Univ.

The Case of Empathic Media in Advertising
By Dr. Andrew McStay, Bangor Univ

My take on this seminar topic stems from what I term ‘empathic media’. Developed in my recent book Privacy and Philosophy: New Media and Affective Protocol (2014), this odd sounding expression has less to do with sympathy, but technologies able to interpret people and their environments by means of text, images, facial recognition, speech, behaviour, gesture, skin responses, respiration and bodily movement. Each of these involves mediation of emotional transparency by means of arousal, social-semiotic practices and behaviour.

This is a relatively new dimension to the transparency surveillance question that will become more pronounced as smart cities discourses are increasingly realised. For a tangible example, this year M&C Saatchi has tested advertising billboards with hidden Microsoft Kinect cameras that read viewers’ emotions and react according to whether a person’s facial expression is happy, sad or neutral. This is the first example of artificial intelligence (albeit a limited sort) being used in urban environments.

At this stage very little data is being collected but this information will be very useful to the media owners so to chart performance of the media sites across cities. This information will surely be irresistible to authorities.

Bioreactive empathy was also evident at Wimbledon this year. In partnership with Wimbledon, Maido and Lightwave, Mindshare launched a campaign called Feel Wimbledon. This captured moods and emotions of the Wimbledon crowd by means of heart rate variability, localized audio, motion and skin temperature of 20 fans in the crowd, via sensor-equipped wristbands. This allowed Jaguar to create ‘living ads’ by means of visualising fluctuating emotions.

This provides us some foresight into the implications of wearables. Feel Wimbledon received full consent for participants, but if (and I admit it’s a big if) wearables become embedded in everyday life, emotionally sensitive empathic media will grant advertising greater insight into our emotions through how we speak to our mobile devices, more granular facial recognition and emotional insights derived from our heart rates, respiration patterns and how our skin responds to stimuli. A bit weird I know, but we’re already a good part of the way there.

Most notably with the M&C Saatchi campaign, the artificial intelligence part comes in as soft biometric feedback from viewers provides data by which ads improve themselves (for example by using elements that win smiles rather than grimaces). 

As it stands, empathic media do not require personal information. This fact means that data can be more easily collected, processed and shared. Although there are right and proper questions to be asked about re-identification and whether it can truly be separated from personally-identifiable information, the industry is betting big on the fact that it can be bundled as ‘non-spooky’ because it is legally compliant. This presents an interesting conundrum because data protection and privacy concerns are typically based on the principle of identification, not intimacy.

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