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Waze Is Watching You and It Knows You Want McRibs

Google isn’t just monitoring what you do online; it’s watching you while you’re in your car, too

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Monica Burton is the deputy editor of

Welcome to the future, where apps can show you an ad for a burger, then lead you straight to it. Crowdsourced GPS app Waze, which was acquired by Google in 2013 for more than $1 billion, can now determine not only where exactly you’re driving, but also what billboards you may be seeing along the way. And in a recent partnership with McDonald’s, it put this data into action to steer app users directly to McDonald’s locations after showing them ads for McRibs, reports Search Engine Land.

Last October, Waze tested these new advertising capabilities in Southern California. The Waze app mapped the location of around 300 McDonald’s billboards in the area. When Waze users traveled along a route with one of these, the app pushed a “zero-speed takeover” ad, which appears on the Waze device when the car is stopped. (Safety first, then processed pork products.) Along with a photo of the elusive McRib sandwich, the ad offered drivers the option to reroute to a nearby McDonald’s location.

During the campaign, 8,400 drivers opted to reroute to a McDonald’s. This number only includes drivers who immediately went to a McDonald’s after seeing the ad, but given that the ad made 6 million total impressions, it’s likely other drivers picked up a McRib or made a McDonald’s visit later. Although Waze didn’t track those visits, the company does have that capability: Waze pings its users’ GPS every second and stores that data, sometimes sharing it with local governments, in what many consider a step too far regarding privacy concerns.

According to Waze’s “brand solutions” page for advertisers (it’s also worked with brands like Red Roof Inn and the 76 gas station chain in the U.S.), the company has the ability to target ads to drivers based on what it knows about where they’re driving (to work or home), whether they’re a tourist or a local, and depending on factors like the weather, traffic, or time of day. It also promises to share with its advertisers user data like the “average distance driven from ads” and “driver loyalty.” Basically, there’s nothing Waze doesn’t know about its drivers (i.e. potential product consumers).

This isn’t the first partnership Waze has done with a food brand — in 2017, it linked with the Dunkin’ Donuts app to allow users to order their coffee ahead, then guided them to their pickup. But the McDonald’s ploy feels particularly creepy, even aside from from the fact that it promoted the decidedly creepy McRib sandwich: Ads once only entered cars through the radio or a passing billboard, but now with what the advertising industry calls “out-of-home ad coordination,” drivers don’t need to see a billboard to register that a McDonald’s is coming up — their phones are doing it for them.

Waze conquers ‘digital dark zone’ with in-car, out-of-home ad coordination [Seach Engine Land]