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Smart cities: Will they ad up?

Advertising in smart cities throws up a lot of questions. Now’s a good time to talk about them.

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While some festive traditions hold fast, new ones sneak in too. One of the stranger ones I have noticed is the widespread anticipation of and discussion around Christmas advertisements on TV, as if they were movie releases.

 

This year, UK brands have played up to the hype – one supermarket Christmas ad was banned, another managed to pull in megastar Elton John, one campaign reportedly sparked in-store fights over fluffy carrots and another has drawn ire, accused of shaming working mothers. Merry Christmas!

 

The festive season cranks up the advertising noise even higher than usual but at the best of times, it’s hard to avoid products stalking you around the internet or irritating pop-ups and auto-play videos vying for your eyeballs.

 

Advertising is crowding more areas of our lives and it could be about to get worse. A number of recent news stories have highlighted the growing use of advertising to fund smart city investments.

 

Who pays?

 

As my dad used to say: “You don’t get owt for nowt (or, ‘you don’t get anything for nothing’ for those not from Yorkshire in the UK).

 

Philadelphia recently activated the city’s first kiosks to deliver free super-fast, secure Wi-Fi and other services at no cost to taxpayers or users. Following in the footsteps of LinkNYC, LinkPHL is provided by Intersection, a smart cities technology and media company. LinkPHL is free to users and taxpayers because it is supported through advertising on the Link displays. In addition to covering the costs of installing, maintaining and upgrading LinkPHL, advertising is also expected to generate “millions of dollars in revenue” for Philadelphia, which will be used to help fund public services.

 

Advertising is also expected to generate “millions of dollars in revenue” for Philadelphia, which will be used to help fund public services.

 

Elsewhere, German start-up UZE Mobility has an innovative idea to boost up-take of electric mobility – rethinking the business model. The company is offering rental of its electric vehicles completely free to users and will make its money through selling ad space on digital screens on the vehicles, alongside other use cases. The model could be extended to public transport too.

 

Firefly is another start-up that allows rideshare drivers to make extra money through digital advertising.

 

My way or the (sponsored) highway

 

There’s even talk of sponsored motorways, with the UK government rumoured to be drafting a plan to secure deals for motorways which would see them emblazoned with business branding, similar to many sports stadiums across the world.

 

The US already has the Adopt-A-Highway scheme, which lets businesses have a strong advertising presence, with the money raised being used for maintenance. Reports say motorway sponsorship could bring in as much as £20 million per road annually.

 

There’s even talk of sponsored motorways, with the UK government rumoured to be drafting a plan to secure deals for motorways.

 

But is more advertising what we want for our cities? And more targeted, data-driven ads at that? It doesn’t usually appear on the utopian mock-ups of our future public spaces.

 

In a survey of 1,001 US internet users by Kantar Millward Brown, 71 per cent of respondents said that ads are more intrusive now than they were three years ago. A similar number indicated that they’re seeing more ads overall, and even more agreed that ads are now appearing in more places.

 

In an August 2018 survey of 1,079 adult US internet users conducted by Janrain, the most popular response given when respondents were asked which statement about online ads they agreed with most was that ads are too aggressive.

 

Nearly one-fifth of respondents said that online ads are effective in appealing to their interests and needs, but found the phenomenon “creepy” nonetheless – and that’s definitely a word that the smart city movement needs to shake off.

 

A fair trade?

 

Nowadays, we are used to accepting advertising to gain benefits or free content. And, of course, ads can lead us to find new products or services that we enjoy.

 

Some may see advertising as a fair trade-off for city-wide connectivity, well-maintained public infrastructure, upping gig workers’ pay and boosting cleaner forms of mobility. Although many would argue that all these areas are core functions of government, the reality is that a lot of cities can’t afford to deliver these improvements and services on their own.

 

Nowadays, we are used to accepting advertising to gain benefits or free content. And, of course, ads can lead us to find new products or services that we enjoy.

 

The benefits offered in return for advertising could be significant. In addition to Wi-Fi, the LinkPHL kiosks offer mobile device charging, phone calls to anywhere in the US, access to municipal and emergency services, maps and directions, and community events, arts and cultural information.

 

In many places, such as Kansas, these screens are also used to deliver critical information, such as safety warnings for citizens.

 

The UZE Mobility ads can be adapted to the vehicle’s precise location as it moves around the city. Adverts can be tailored to the demographics of a neighbourhood or even the weather – if it starts raining, the ad panel could instantly promote beach holidays or even a nearby shop where umbrellas are on sale. You could get a free ride and a bargain to boot.

 

Managing ads

 

Advertising in cities is, of course, not new and neither is the debate about having too much of it in public spaces.

 

Sao Paolo, Grenoble and Chennai are examples of cities that have taken steps to prevent advertising taking over. Citizen groups have voiced their dissatisfaction too. In 2016, the Citizens Advertising Takeover Service aka C.A.T.S bought up the ad space in a London tube station and used it for cute pictures of cats. They said they wanted to “help people think a bit differently about the world around them, and get inspired to change things for the better”.

 

Now, though, we could be approaching another tipping point as we see more examples of ad-funded smart city initiatives, as well as advertising appearing in new places, and through new models.

 

Success brings copycats – take dockless bike-share and ride-hailing services as an example. In these sectors, many cities have had to regulate after the fact due to overcrowding and other knock-on adverse effects. A proliferation of advertising on this scale could be just as controversial and tricky to reverse.

 

There are, as always, more questions than answers. Are ads a fair trade-off for better public services? What protections will be in place? How will the number of ads be monitored as new types of ad spaces pop up? And, crucially, what say will citizens get?

 

I certainly don’t have the answers – I’d be interested to hear your thoughts and experiences.

 

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