Recently some televised sports events have begun using a system that makes billboards in stadiums appear to have ads they don’t really have. The process is something like a digital version of chrome key, but it’s much more powerful. In the next few years this technology will become even more powerful, and also considerably cheaper, opening up new opportunities for advertisers on the Internet, and raising a number of interesting issues in the process.
While broadcast media is subject to regulations requiring a clear separation between content and advertisement, no such restrictions apply to Internet based media. In addition, only a handful of films, like Citizen Kane, have contractual protection from any kind of after the fact modification of content. As a result, advertisers on the Internet will be able to integrate their product into programming to a degree not possible since the golden age of radio.
It may be limited to billboards now, but in a few years new digital video technology will be able to seamlessly a replace any product being used by an actor in a movie or TV episode, including items held or worn, even if the actor is moving. Given the revenue potential, it’s only a matter of time before Hollywood starts making films that are designed to support digital post-production product placement, or virtual product placement. For instance, actors might simply drink soda from a solid color can, making it a simple process to overdub the image of a Coke or Pepsi can later. Using this technology, it will be possible to sell product placement permanently, or just for a specified time or regional market. Actors might appear to be drinking Coke in a movie when it was seen in Florida, but might appear to be drinking Pepsi to people seeing the same movie in California.
Internet based media will offer even more opportunities for advertisers than the theater. Since movies distributed on the Internet will already be in digital format, it will be relatively easy to insert digital tags in them to tell where to insert advertiser’s products. For instance, a scene at a party might show six people drinking six different cans of soft drinks. Using a process somewhat similar that used to colorize movies, the movie’s owner or distributor could have each of the six different cans digitally tagged so any or all cans could be offered for product placement. This digital tag would be a few lines of text telling where to put the product image, its spatial orientation, and size, added to each frame a product was to appear in. Like a layer in Photoshop, the tag could easily be edited or deleted as needed. Advertisers will only need to supply a Webcaster with a 3D image file of their packaging, in this case, a 3D image of a can of soda. Software the Webcaster will be using will do the actual work of inserting the product image into each scene as needed, on the fly.
The process of adding tags to enable product placement could be done either during the production of movies, or any time afterwards. Eventually, the vast library of Hollywood, from silents to current films, will be tagged and available for product placement. Granted, certain period pieces like Gladiator, or Star Wars, will offer little, if any, opportunities for product placement, but the majority of movies will offer opportunities, and many of them excellent ones.
It is interesting to consider how many digital product placements could tastefully be inserted into the movie classic Casablanca. Period ads for Coke, in the local language, hanging on walls might not seem out of place. Neither would modern brands of liquor behind the bar, or modern brands of cigarettes. Painting a TWA logo on the passenger airliner Ingrid Bergman departs on at the end of the movie might work, too (though a Pan American logo might have been even better.)
Less tasteful product insertions into Casablanca are also interesting to consider. In fact the extremes this technology could be taken to, in terms of fundamentally changing a films mood, period authenticity, even color balance and composition, are enough to give directors, actors, and critics, nightmares. It’s not sure if these groups will have much say in the practice of product placement, but they’ll raise issues advertisers need to be able to respond to.
Other issues will be raised by digital product placement, too. For instance, who gets to decide to insert digital product placements in movies being distributed on the Internet? Who gets the royalties? Since no law prohibits the digital replacement of products already in films, could Coke pay to have Pepsi cans magically replaced with Coke cans in movies distributed on the Internet? If Pepsi hadn’t paid for the placement in the first place, would they have any legal recourse to being replaced? What if Pepsi had paid for the placement originally?
As with any revolutionary technology, opportunities appear long before customs and laws have evolved to resolve the inevitable conflicts the new technology creates. Virtual product placement is already available in a primitive form, and it won’t be too long before it’s a common practice for advertisers that would never consider it today. It’s going to be a great new tool, but advertisers tempted to overuse it ought to consider that it’s only a temporary advantage. Eventually, this technology will become commodity priced, and it will be just as easy for consumers to replace and filter out products they don’t want to see. It’s a virtual certainty.
From Advertising & Marketing Review August, 2000.
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