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MoviePass Founder Proposes Free Movies in Exchange for Watching Ads

Mobile app uses facial recognition technology to make sure you're watching ads

Kindra Cooper


A nascent mobile app by MoviePass cofounder Stacy Spikes promises users two free movie tickets in exchange for watching 15-20 minutes of ads – but there’s a catch.

The app harnesses facial recognition technology in the front-facing camera on your cell phone to verify that you're paying attention. Avert your eyes, turn away or obscure part of your face and playback pauses after five seconds. 

If that sounds alarming (or eerily Orwellian) to you, popular consensus suggests otherwise. Spikes launched the idea through Kickstarter in March, garnering 1,682 backers pledging over $56,000 to bring the product to life. 

PreShow, which bills itself “the first ad-supported moviegoer network,” has tried to quell glaring security and ethics concerns associated with facial recognition technology by assuring that the app won’t record anyone while they’re watching or share any personally identifiable data with third parties.

Instead, its advertising partners will be fed aggregated and anonymized data, representing a “30,000-foot view of your activity.” 

While the appeal of free movie tickets is self-evident, nothing in the known universe is really free. Anything purporting to be so is tantamount to a sugar high – expect that a crash is imminent.  

Read more: Netflix Fatigue - Too Many Streaming Services, Too Much Consumer Choice?

Currently, only Kickstarter backers have access to the app’s private beta launch in July; the general public has to wait until 2020. Once you sign up, you receive a virtual card which is credited with real money once you’ve watched the allotted ads.

The ads you see will depend on which movie you’ve selected. You then use the card to buy movie tickets at theaters or online like you normally would, with no blackout periods for Saturday nights or opening weekends. 

According to CNET, while you’re actively watching a green border glows at the edge of the video. If you look away, the outline turns red and the video pauses after five seconds. 

“We had two problems we wanted to solve,” Spikes told CNET. “We didn’t want people creating dummy accounts and we’re dealing with real currency at the end of the day so we needed to uniquely lock it.” 

The video ads will be made by brands with integrations in the movie, like when Nokia featured its 7110 phone in The Matrix as a portal for entering the digital world or Chevrolet’s heavy presence in Transformers. Or, they might be behind-the-scenes style videos involving brands and films. 

“Imagine a featurette about Brie Larson’s training regimen for Captain Marvel that’s sponsored by a fitness company,” writes CNET senior reporter Joan E. Solsman. 

Read more: Brands as Storytellers - Analyzing the Content Strategy of Starbucks, WeWork and More 

The Kickstarter campaign copy for PreShow attempts to gloss things over by invoking a false sense of control: “You can start and stop the PreShow video whenever you like. The motion detector automatically pauses playback if you have to step away. You can resume watching anytime at your leisure.”

In the attention economy, advertisers are waging war against society’s resistance to ads, scrambling to surmount ad blockers, “banner blindness” and other gestures of disregard, such as muting a video or opening a new tab.

Publishers and gaming companies have experimented with video-supported “paywalls,” where users gain access to free content after watching an ad, but viewers still have the option to mute the video or, um, swivel their eyeballs. 

If facial recognition-supported video ads become standard, not only will it be harder for consumers to access free content, but brands will have fewer reliable metrics for ad engagement. 

Read more: How Chobani Used Experiential Marketing to Become the #1 Greek Yogurt Brand 

For companies like Netflix, YouTube and Facebook, the most valuable consumer metric is screen time. The problem is that attention doesn’t scale, and requiring people to give it on the company’s terms (in PreShow’s case, without looking away) doesn’t take customer sentiment into account. 

Advertising is predicated on the notion that if you’ve repeatedly heard of a brand and have a positive association with it, you’re more likely to buy the product. Forcing people to watch ads begrudgingly reduces the value of consumer engagement and only risks customers feeling resentful towards the brand. 

Besides, if you’ve ever heard of the oft-cited psychological study where test subjects showed a preference for self-administering electric shocks rather than sit in an empty room alone with their thoughts, it’s hard not to wonder just how much ad-watching people will tolerate in exchange for a free movie ticket.