The Mannequins Will Be Watching You

For reasons that are not exactly rational, cameras mounted on a wall just seem orders of magnitude less creepy than those inside the eyes of mannequins.

andrea michele piacquadio/Shutterstock

This holiday season, if you shop at Benetton*, you may be under surveillance.

Of course, we are all pretty used to the idea of security cameras trained on the entrance of a store, or over a counter of particularly expensive goods, and we've become accustomed -- even if we don't like it, on a gut level -- to the tracking that comes with online shopping, populating the ad boxes from website to website of those sneakers you just looked at. But Benetton's surveillance looks a little different: The store has purchased mannequins from an Italian company which promises that "from now on the mannequins will not only display your collections ... [but will] make it possible to 'observe' who is attracted by your windows and reveal important details about [them]."

As Bloomberg's Andrew Roberts reports:

Retailers are introducing the EyeSee, sold by Italian mannequin maker Almax SpA, to glean data on customers much as online merchants are able to do. The 4,000-euro ($5,072) device has spurred shops to adjust window displays, store layouts and promotions to keep consumers walking in the door and spending.

"It's spooky," said Luca Solca, head of luxury goods research at Exane BNP Paribas in London. "You wouldn't expect a mannequin to be observing you."

The EyeSee looks ordinary enough on the outside, with its slender polystyrene frame, blank face and improbable pose. Inside, it's no dummy. A camera embedded in one eye feeds data into facial-recognition software like that used by police. It logs the age, gender, and race of passers-by.

The company claims that the mannequins are better able to watch shoppers than wall-mounted security cameras because of their eye-level perspective and the fact that many consumer will stand and linger close to the mannequins as they examine the display. Notwithstanding whether this supposed advantage is real or just hype from a company looking to sell some souped-up mannequins, it must be said that the two modes of surveillance *feel* somehow different: We may not love wall-mounted camera surveillance, but in comparison it seems quotidian, a concession we make to store-owners looking to both protect and promote their wares.

But very similar instruments, when placed inside the shell of a human figurine, seem suddenly ominous -- all the more so because the company is reportedly testing an audio capability which would give the mannequins the ability to listen in on conversations for certain keywords. Responses to the Bloomberg story labeled the technology creepy, spooky, and invasive.

As Evan Selinger wrote earlier this year in Slate, "Creepy is the go-to term for broadcasting how technology unsettles us." Often, Selinger argued, that vague notion of creepiness can actually indicate the presence of more specific problems, such as sexism, an invasion of privacy, or fears that the technology will not work well and will have negative consequences when it malfunctions. In the case of the watching mannequins, it seems that all of those concerns may be at play, in addition to the fact that we may be unnerved by our raw movement and race-age-sex statistics becoming data that can power ever-more-subtle and ever-more-effective corporate marketing.

If that's what seems "creepy" about watchful mannequins is it any less creepy when our behavior is observed from a regular camera? Perhaps the human-like casing just makes the truth more apparent: The data such cameras collect do not just stay forever inside the cameras, but go to real humans with real human purposes. As a thought experiment (or, even as a reality experiment), these mannequins are a reminder that we should think critically about the ways stores observe customers and the consequences of that observation. The same gut feeling we have about technology inside a mannequin shell should still stand when those cameras and software do the same work from a non-human mount.

But then again, there's always been something kind of creepy about mannequins, camera-equipped or not.

Correction: Benetton Group has emailed to say that the original Bloomberg article misreported their use of such mannequins. A statement from Benetton reads: "Benetton Group does not employ any mannequins - or, for that matter, anything else - with the technology described in various media reports that circulated in the last days." Bloomberg has corrected its story.