Opening Pandora's Box: GM Tracking Consumer Listening Behavior in Cars

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

General Motors has begun surveying how its drivers experience in-car multimedia, specifically the radio, as part of its new strategy to track customer habits and maximize the profitability of information. With 4G LTE WiFi connectivity now featured inside millions of GM vehicles, the automaker believes technology can be used to fine tune its future marketing strategies.

While an invaluable insight tool for advertisers, it’s also the perfect example of the kind of thing we’ve been complaining about for the last couple of years. General Motors is leaning into Big Data as hard as possible, meaning your personal information could soon be on the line — if it isn’t already.

Earlier this week, WARC reported that Saejin Park, director of global digital transformation at General Motors, discussed this subject at the Association of National Advertisers’ (ANA) 2018 Data & Measurement Conference. “The radio industry and the car industry have been existing side by side … But, really, there hasn’t been that much interaction between the two,” she told the audience.

Before you grow terrified that we’ve already entered into a Big Brother scenario, GM’s initial testing did require customer opt-in before their data was flung around country. But Park said the automaker still managed to collect radio listening data on roughly 90,000 vehicles from Los Angeles and Chicago between November 2017 through January 2018.

By matching audio feeds from AM and FM waves, as well as XM satellite radio, the Detroit-based automaker claims it can track a customer’s listening habits and align radio cues with specific consumer behaviors. “We can tell if they listened to it to the end. Or, in the middle of the commercial, did they change it to another station?” Park said, adding that even vehicle type influenced radio trends.

“[Someone in an Escalade] might be more likely to listen to 101.5. But someone else might be driving a GMC Yukon — same-sized vehicle, but a different brand — would be more likely to listen to 101.1,” Park said. “And you can start testing [that] by sending them different kinds of advertising to see some kind of behavior in the [listening] patterns.”

Basically, GM would pass the data to its marketing teams and they would assess how to best cater ads to customers. If no one who plans on buying a Cadillac is listening to one station, GM can buy ad space from one that does. It can also track consumer listening habits and sell that information to other companies. For example, imagine there is a soda commercial you absolutely hate that forces you to change the station. That might be the kind of thing the makers of said beverage might pay to know about.

However, Park said the potential applications of such technology reach much further than simply keeping tabs on what you’re listening to. “We’re looking for ways to use these kinds of datasets. It’s a complicated, complex problem and I don’t know what the answer is. But GM is really interested in finding out what the potential path could be,” she added.

You can use your imagination at this point, as General Motors almost certainly is. Theoretically, connected cars could transmit more information than just radio traffic. What, where, and how you’re driving are all up for grabs. If you’re near a store that’s partnered with Chevrolet, GMC, Buick, or Cadillac, then you might get a reminder on your dashboard to stock up on something — in fact, the company has already discussed this possibility. If you already stopped, GM might send that information along to the retailer. Hell, it might even if you don’t stop.

It’s a lot of power for one company to have, but it likely won’t be just one company. General Motors happens to be blazing this particular trail; there are other manufacturers directly behind it considering the exact same things. Frankly, there’s too much money to be made for them not to.

[Image: General Motors]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • APaGttH APaGttH on Sep 25, 2018

    That's why I won't use the hotspot or built in apps on any GM. I just plug my phone in and use it. That way Google, Verizon, Amazon, Liberty Media, etc. etc. etc. can track my every move and try to sell me stuff instead. Wait a minute...

    • MBella MBella on Sep 26, 2018

      This is actually the real problem. It's easy enough to deactivate it on the car. Deactivate tracking on your phone makes it a useless brick.

  • Cognoscenti Cognoscenti on Sep 26, 2018

    ComScore Networks was founded in July 1999 in Reston, Virginia. That was when the death of privacy accelerated. Currently, privacy is an illusion. No amount of dog and pony show grillings of Zuckerberg by Congress, or click-bait articles such as this one will change that. It's done already. Y'all tin foil hat-wearing posters are barking up the wrong tree by suggesting GM is any different from any other vehicle manufacturer.

    • Sub-600 Sub-600 on Sep 26, 2018

      You believe it was founded in 1999, just like they want you too. It’s actually been in existence since 1947 when it started in New Mexico, where it still is today. The whole “Reston” thing was a red herring for general media consumption. We are not alone.

  • Arthur Dailey 'The capitalists will sell use the very rope that we use to hang them.' In our household we have cut down our shopping/spending and pay more to purchase products from 1st world nations or 2nd world nations that are our 'allies'. That also means quite often only buying and eating fruit and vegetables that are in season. Just like our parents and grandparents did.At least TTAC published an article on May 21st regarding LAN transformers that contravene the Uyghur Forced Labour Prevention Act being used in some BMW, Jaguar, Land Rover, and VW products?
  • ToolGuy I wouldn't buy any old Chinese brand of vehicle, but the right EV at the right price, maybe possibly yes. If you told me this would alarm Ford and torque off FreedMike, all the better. 😉P.S. I would *definitely* consider an EV made in Taiwan. Take that, paramount leader!P.P.S. China batteries/components to convert one of my ICE vehicles to EV? Yes.
  • Wolfwagen I expect Renault to be less popular than Fiat
  • ToolGuy Helium-3, baby!
  • Roman Our 1999 Pontiac Sunfire Gt is still running without any issues. 25 years and counting.
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