Though they may seem like yet another example of Silicon Valley dude-bros re-inventing the bus, those LED screens fastened atop drink coolers at Walgreens and Kroger locations are likely a whole lot more Black Mirror than meets the eye.
Technology and film creator @fleshsimulator headed to TikTok on Monday with a clip detailing just how nefarious these new screens may be, explaining that much like everything else, these new installations aren’t simply for making ad revenue, but rather, mining our sweet, sweet consumer data.
@madimelody People kept tapping it like a touch screen #wasteofenergy #HotwireHotelGoals #itcoststhismuch #walgreens #coolerscreens #fyp #advertising #crazy ♬ Monkeys Spinning Monkeys - Kevin MacLeod & Kevin The Monkey
During a recent Walgreens run, @fleshsimulator got up close and personal with one of these strange screens, a chance encounter that sparked a trip down a research rabbit hole about what may be the ulterior motive of Cooler Screens, the company behind the product.
“Now supposedly the purpose of these screens is to show you ads, right? That’s what they’re telling you, but you know what else can show you ads? Literally every other surface.” he explained, before whipping out the screen’s patent.
“The real purpose of these screens is to use the little camera at the top right here to scan your face and use AI facial expression analysis to judge whether or not you like the packaging designs of the product you’re looking for,” @fleshsimulator stated while eating what appears to be a smoothie straight out of the blender in his shower. “So you’re not the target of the ad, you’re the data being sold.”
@fleshsimulator #conspiracy #conspiracytiktok #coolerscreens #walgreens #hiddenknowledge #corporatesecrets #fleshsimulator ♬ original sound - FLESH SIMULATOR
Despite the weird context of his clip, @fleshsimulator isn’t simply spewing tin foil hat-worthy nonsense. Back in 2019, former Wall Street Journal reporter Lara O’Reilly delved into the origins of Cooler Screens, appearing to confirm these suspicions.
“Cameras and sensors inside the coolers connected to face-detection technology also can determine which items shoppers picked up or looked at, giving advertisers insight into whether their on-screen promotions worked,” O’Reilly, who is now a senior correspondent for Insider, wrote of the product at the time.
Though Cooler Screens’ founder Arsen Avakian tried to deny that his newly-minted company was most definitely in the business of shilling data, his denial sounded more like a corporate buzzword salad than anything actually reassuring.
“The business model is not built on selling consumer data,” the former Argo Tea CEO said in the same article. “The business model is built on providing intelligence to brands and to the retailers to craft a much better shopping experience.”
Lol the “cooler screens” screens at walgreens don’t even accurately display what’s in or out of stuck and are less functional than “a normal window” pic.twitter.com/qY6d8bSpBH— Rory Blank (a ghost) (@BoneJail) October 27, 2021
But as these screens spread into more retailers across the country, more consumers began sounding the alarm, including several shoppers under @fleshsimulator’s clip. While some, including @Budboyy2k, questioned the legal implications of this product — “does this mean that Walgreens would need to inform me before I go into the store that I'm being used for data?” they asked — others began speculating ways to play the companies right back.
“Mean-mugging the refrigerated aisle, heard,” wrote @creamy.
“I’m just gonna look really dismayed at any product I buy now just to be petty,” added @grande.
@trevercarreon #stitch with @kaijucantdie #walgreens is getting really #orwellian #1984 #targetedadvertising #snowcrash #commentary #thefutureisnow ♬ original sound - trevercarreon
But even though Cooler Screens may be (allegedly) mining our data, there is still a lesson to be learned from this whole ordeal. As comedian @trevercarreon so aptly put it in their clip about the new drugstore feature: “Remember, when a company spends millions of dollars on something that seems benign and pointless, usually that thing is really f—king evil.”