The Current

Advertisers can digitally add product placements in TV and movies — tailored to your digital footprint

New tech lets advertisers insert virtual products into finished TV and films, using your online data to tailor the placement to the viewer. Could that mean E.T. ends up eating your favourite candy, and not Reese's Pieces? And how will viewers react?

Tech allows thousands of products to be inserted, in real time, into streamed content

In this screenshot from a promotional video for Ryff, the Taco Bell food in the lower left corner has been digitally added. Ryff's technology inserts products into films and TV shows for advertisers, after they have been filmed. (Ryff/YouTube)

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Advertisers are starting to deploy technology that can place products inside finished films and TV shows you stream online, and tailor those products specifically to your tastes. 

"We can take a 3D object and put it into the scene, and because the 3D objects sit in the cloud, we can change them based on almost any variable," said Roy Taylor, the founder and CEO of Ryff, a company offering the technology.

This virtual product placement is based on the same ideas as the traditional version: advertisers believe if you see a movie star drinking a can of Coca-Cola in a scene, you'll want to buy one yourself.

The new technology allows one of thousands of products in the cloud to be inserted, in real time, into online streaming content, Taylor told The Current's Matt Galloway.

Traditional product placement generated over $11 billion US worldwide in 2019, according to figures from marketing and consumer data company Statista. On Sunday, millions will tune in to Super Bowl LIV, where a 30-second commercial will cost $5.6 million US.

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In Ryff's promotional video, the Dunkin' Donuts branding on the storefront has been digitally added to the scene. While targeted ads rely on broad demographics, they could one day be tailored to each individual's shopping habits. (Ryff/YouTube)

Taylor said the burgeoning market for virtual product placement could be worth billions, and while it's only being used in streaming services now, it could eventually be applied to live sports events like the Super Bowl.

"You can take the ability to use modern digital technology to completely revamp the advertising industry."

Right now, the choice of product is based on broad demographics. The information compiled from your online activity — your age, location, gender, ethnicity, as well as sites you visit — puts you in a category of people like you who tend to buy certain things. 

But Taylor said the technology will advance to harvesting our individual online footprints. 

For instance, a meat-eater watching a movie could see chicken or beef products in a kitchen scene, while a vegan watching the same show — at the same time, but on a different screen — would see fruits and vegetables. 

"It will happen as soon as early next year," he said.

Technology removes 'guesswork'

Companies have long placed products conspicuously in the media we consume in an effort to boost sales — but Taylor says it's always required some guesswork.

"When you put a product into a scene, to a certain extent, you're having to guess that the cultural relevance of your brand works for the widest audience," he said. 

Even if studios know they want to advertise different products to different audiences (for example, based on the different products available in North America or Europe), they need to shoot the scene multiple times, or add the products using editing tools in post-production.

"But that's slow and very expensive," he said.

"Now that we, especially in streaming, we know who's watching, we don't have to guess anymore."

The advertising world has figured out that if you serve an ad that someone is in a state of mind to accept, then they'll accept it.- Tiffany Hsu

Galloway asked if there were any classic films or shows that would be deemed off limits, such as E.T., where the alien famously loves Reese's Pieces. Could we see him one day eating a new flavour of M&Ms instead?

He acknowledged that with older movies and shows that have become fan favourites, tampering with the classics may not be such a good idea. 

"Just because you can doesn't mean you should," Taylor said.

"There are iconic pieces of content where we would probably be very unhappy if we were asked to support any change. But there are plenty of others where I don't think the viewer would mind whatsoever."

Advertisers may not want to tamper with some classic films, like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Taylor said. (Universal)

Some viewers hate it: journalist

Journalist Tiffany Hsu said it's hard to tell how effective the placements is, in terms of marketing a product. 

"There's a group of consumers that absolutely hate it, and every time it comes on screen, they want to turn off whatever program they're watching," said Hsu, who covers the advertising industry for the New York Times.   

"But for a lot of other viewers, it's just a blip — it goes by."

She said people will generally respond well to advertising aimed at them. Younger viewers, for example, are willing to see ads aimed at their age group, but not for products directed at their grandparents or teachers. 

"This is why there's so much of a focus on customizing ads, because the advertising world has figured out that if you serve an ad that someone is in a state of mind to accept, then they'll accept it."

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Ads can even be the main event, she added. This weekend, viewers in the U.S. who record the Super Bowl on their TiVos will have the option to skip the football and just watch the ad breaks instead. (In Canada, the CRTC decision that directed Canadian networks to show U.S. ads was overturned in December.)

"TiVo understands that this is a special situation where people actually want to see those ads," she told Galloway.

"Now, is TiVo doing this for the Oscars? Probably not." 

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Peter Mitton and Ben Jamieson.