Ads Suck. Can They Be Redeemed In Tomorrow’s Smart Cities?

Intersection believes context-aware ads could benefit both brands and consumers–but only if they don’t go too far.

Ads Suck. Can They Be Redeemed In Tomorrow’s Smart Cities?
[Photo: courtesy of Intersection]

The smart cities of tomorrow will reinvent many of the inefficient and clumsy aspects of urban life, maybe even the advertisements we see in public spaces. In fact, the people at Intersection believe physical advertisements, done right, could play a useful role in tomorrow’s cities. Such ads, the company believes, may be a way for brands to redeem themselves somewhat in the physical world after losing credibility with consumers in the digital and mobile worlds.


Intersection grew out of Sidewalk Labs in 2015 to tackle the project of outfitting New York cities streets with 10-foot tall public Wi-Fi kiosks. Sidewalk Labs is the smart cities daughter company of Alphabet, and its CEO Dan Doctoroff is also the chairman of Intersection. The two companies share the same office space in New York City.

A large part of Intersection’s business today is helping brands create and place ads on city streets, at transit hubs, in rail cars and buses, and at airports. Intersection can provide the design and creative services to produce the ad content, then facilitate placement of the ads via its exclusive partnerships with many of the country’s largest and busiest transit systems.

Chief strategy officer Dave Etherington said during a Fast Company Innovation Festival session Wednesday that consumers have lost trust in advertisers after the fake news debacle, revelations that as much as half of ad engagement comes from bots, and the growth in popularity of ad blockers.

[Photo: Mark Sullivan]
But that’s on digital platforms. Brands may have a chance to modulate their advertising practices in the real world, Etherington suggests. The way to do that, Etherington says, is by creating ads that integrate smoothly into urban environments, and provide something truly useful to consumers.

Etherington described how Intersection helped MillerCoors with a campaign that detected when New York (MTA) commuter trains were running late, then ran ads on transit signs encouraging consumers to get off the train and have a beer at a nearby watering hole. “This allowed MillerCoors to reach individuals not only at the right place, but at their moment of intent as well,” Etherington said in a blog on the subject.

Intersection’s head of design Paul McConnell said the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) was surprisingly enthusiastic about the idea. “Somewhat to our surprise the MTA said, ‘Yes!'” McConnell says. The MTA felt that the beer offers might end up making passengers happier and less frustrated with the system.


Or, instead of inviting commuters to have a beer, a situation-aware advertising system could display a coupon for a ride-sharing service available up on street level.

Paul McConnell [Photo: Mark Sullivan]
In that example, the data on train delays is pulled from the MTA’s systems, but Intersection might also help a brand use sensors or other technology to collect the data needed to display context-aware ads.

Intersection helped Bank of America do something similar at the Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina. It organized a program in which Boingo would offer free Wi-Fi service at the gate when a certain number of flights were delayed by weather. Passengers, the thinking went, could at least connect for free while they waited to take off. Intersection designed and placed full-motion digital signage announcing the free Wi-Fi (with some warm and fuzzy Bank of America creative) and helpfully listed the top 10 warmest destinations reachable from Charlotte that day.

In that example Intersection was informing the creative with both flight schedule and real-time weather data. Etherington says it’s not enough to just detect data on consumers’ situation and intent; brands have to have the systems in place to act on them in ways consumers like.

This all sounds nice, unless companies like Intersection and their big-brand clients go too far. When seeking to understand context and consumer intent it might be easy to become too focused on the data that can be captured–the inferences about individuals that can be drawn. It’s the crucial job of the agency, then, to understand where the creep-out factor and privacy fears kick in for consumers–to understand how far is too far.

Increasingly, consumers look at privacy in a transactional way. We are willing to allow a brand to know a bit of personal information about us as long as the brand uses the data to deliver something useful back to us. Advertisers clearly cross the line in the digital realm when they drop cookies in our browsers to detect the products we browse, then pester us with ads for those same products at sites we subsequently visit.


If brands make this kind of mistake when trying to engage people moving around the smart city, a big opportunity could be lost. If some brand tracks my eating habits in the airport while I wait for a flight, all to show me a Pepto-Bismol or (god forbid) a Weight Watchers ad as I walk by a digital kiosk, I’ll know right away that that “transaction” didn’t work in my favor.