Marketers Need to Reflect on Facial Recognition Sooner Rather Than Later

September 25, 2019

By Matthew Schwartz

Lin Shao-hua/Getty Images

The ongoing proliferation of online advertising and marketing — worthy of a Rube-Goldberg contraption — has made cultivating trust among consumers ever more difficult, but the next frontier for digital advertising, facial recognition, could really put consumers on edge.

Just 18 percent of U.S. adults trust that advertisers will use facial recognition tools responsibly, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.

The survey, based on the responses from 4,272 people, also found that only 15 percent of U.S. adults would find it acceptable for facial recognition tools to be used for seeing how people respond to public advertising displays in real time; 54 percent of the respondents said this was unacceptable.

These percentages are in stark contrast to the public’s views about facial recognition vis-à-vis governments and law enforcement agencies, with 56 percent of respondents saying they trust law enforcement agencies to use facial recognition technologies responsibly.

The discrepancy is understandable. Facial recognition certainly can be used for nefarious purposes; the Pew study points to a Washington Post report that found that U.S. law enforcement agencies are using state Department of Motor Vehicles records to identify individual Americans without their consent, including those with no criminal records.

However, if the prevailing attitude is that facial recognition technology will protect them, people are willing to overlook the negative, privacy-crushing aspects of the technology.

Advertisers don’t have that luxury. That’s because most consumers tend to view advertising with a jaundiced eye, particularly when brands tout new online tools as a benefit to consumers (and don’t address the downsides). And while many advertisers contribute to society in positive ways, no one ever equated advertisers with assessing potential security threats or protecting the public, as with law enforcement and/or government agencies.

 

Full Disclosure

While facial recognition may still be in the nascent stage, it’s coming on strong. According to a recent report by Allied Market Research, the global facial recognition market is expected to garner $9.58 billion by 2022, growing at compound annual growth rate of 21.3 percent from 2016 to 2022.

It’s difficult to gauge right now how facial recognition will manifest in the marketing realm, but as they start to adopt facial recognition technology — whether organically or via acquisition — brands must be transparent with their stakeholders and the media regarding how they intend to use the technology and to what end.

CMOs have a pivotal role to play. Marketers are the eyes and ears of their company’s customers, of course, and should know which media channels are best to communicate a sensitive situation and what type of verbiage to use.

Marketers should craft appropriate language to fully disclose the policy and, perhaps more important, assuage any concerns among stakeholders regarding the company’s use of facial recognition (however it materializes). People shouldn’t think that advertisers adopting facial recognition technology will start to act like “Big Brother.”

Brands should deploy a full array of marketing channels to explain the policy, including a living, breathing, landing page online, featuring video content; direct mail efforts and, where appropriate, signage.

 

Bridge Between the C-suite and Customers

While the intricacies of facial recognition technology will make people’s eyes glaze over, explaining how the technology will affect advertising is the type of strategic messaging that gives brand managers a good excuse to practice the kind of integrated communications that companies have encouraged for years — but with little success.

Because brand reputation is synonymous with corporate reputation, marketers should work closely with their PR counterparts to communicate how the company is using facial recognition and what it is doing companywide to prevent the technology from deviating from its original intent and/or going rogue.

How brands educate their customers on the use of facial recognition is shaping up to be a key conversation. Ditto for the conversation CMOs will need to have with the C-suite regarding the technology if and when the brand puts facial recognition in its marketing wheelhouse.

But, as with so many other new technologies that can apply to marketing and advertising, do CMOs want to own facial recognition? It presents another opportunity for marketers to improve their value. Considering how controversial facial recognition is, particularly as it relates to protecting the privacy of consumers, job one for marketers will be some serious self-reflection.


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