Rise of the machines: an outdoor ad that builds itself in response to human emotions

The idea of an ad evolving in response to human emotions might sound like the stuff of science-fiction but for those people who happen to pass by a nondescript poster on Oxford Street this week it is very much a reality.

Big screen. Kinect sensor. Powerful PC. They’re unlikely to capture the imaginations of advertisers separately but together, crammed into an outdoor poster they form what is being billed as the world’s first artificially intelligent poster campaign. So far, so Minority Report. Here comes the science bit.

M&C Saatchi’s innovation bods built the ad to evolve over time into the perfect creative – or maybe not quite though that’s the idea. Using the Kinect's camera, the poster is sensing everyone around it, deeming creatives successful when people look at it and unsuccessful when they don’t. As it’s tracking, the ad is switching out images, increasing and decreasing font sizes as well swapping the layout to measure what makes viewers happy, sad or meh.

Ads (or genes) which fail to illicit a response are ‘killed off’, whereas those that spark engagement go on to mate with other successful ads to create new ads that are only made up of the strongest aspects. It gets weirder because a small amount of these ads will mutate at random, meaning the next generation has a chance to naturally develop over time - just like evolution.

“What we want to see over time is that the poster tries less and less things out,” said David Cox, chief innovation officer at M&C Saatchi. “First it tries lots of things at random but as unsuccessful things get killed off then you would hope there are less and less elements toward the end. Over time there are less genes in the gene pool.”

This Darwinian approach to automation, while still a far off prospect for advertisers, could eventually play a role in the path to real-time personalisation for many as well as curb viewability concerns. Imagine, a network of these posters, running the same campaign but spurting out the most effective creative based on emotional responses though now also reacting to everything from the location to the weather or specific events to the mood of specific area.

It is the latter point that the poster’s creators hope to shed light on later this summer when it follows up the intial trial with second wave in Clapham.

“We’ll take what we’ve learn from the poster in Oxford Street and tweak the technology so that hopefully it leads to improvements because it will be interesting to see how the different location triggers a different mindset from people,” said Cox.

“We can look trends like what kinds of images were more popular at a certain time of day, or whether people smile more at certain images. Maybe people in Clapham are grumpier and so they like darker images to maybe tourists on Oxford Street who prefer livelier imagery. There’s a lot of interesting analytics.”

So what next. The ad’s creators plan to use the learnings to inform other pilots they’re running with Kinect and digital billboards. However, Cox said the agency was yet to take the experiment to any of its clients.

“We feel the project is a natural step for digital out of home advertising to really play with creative,” he continued. “In the long run as the tech gets a lot better than it might start actually producing good ads. In the short term, you could tone it back it back slightly and use it more for optimisation. If you have half an ad and you’ve got a few choices and you’re not sure which ones work best then you could let this system work it out for itself.

The AI ads will run at bus shelters on Oxford Street and Clapham Common until 24 July and in August (24 to 25) respectively. The project has been developed in partnership with Posterscope and Clear Channel UK.

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