Is Virtual Product Placement TV’s Latest Disruptor?

It's a new way to monetize content, but creators are wary

Companies such as Mirriad, Ryff and TripleLift are using virtual product placement.
Photo Illustration: ChefBoyRG; Sources: Getty Images

For nearly a century, products have played a starring role in some of the most iconic films and TV shows of all time, from a Hershey’s chocolate bar in 1927’s Wings through the Eggo waffles in Stranger Things.

Throughout those decades, the product-placement process changed very little. Producers and ad agencies would strike a deal to integrate a brand into a script, and at the appropriate time someone would show up on set with a box of products and hand them to the prop master for use in a scene.

Now companies like Mirriad, Ryff and TripleLift are attempting to rewrite the rules of brand integration using virtual product placement.

Inserting brands digitally into video has several obvious advantages. It can be significantly cheaper and more flexible than physically handling each product. It could provide an additional revenue stream at a time when viewers are aggressively rejecting commercials and other interruptions to their video bingeing. And, as the technology progresses, TV branding opportunities may become a lot more like web advertising, with precise targeting and real-time bidding for placements.

But even in an industry as in love with hype as Hollywood, some insiders are skeptical that these digital upstarts can dramatically disrupt the $10 billion product-placement business.

When AI meets CGI

There are three forms of virtual product placement, says Ryff chief product officer Mark Turner. You can insert a product that isn’t in the original scene, remove one that is or change an existing product. In other words, you can add a box of Cheerios to an empty table in a breakfast scene, then swap in Froot Loops or a Dunkin’ doughnut. Or, if a brand no longer wants to be associated with a particular production or actor, the producers can digitally delete the image of that product from the scene.

In cases where a new product is inserted, AI-based software analyzes the scene, identifies spaces where a product could be placed without being obstructed and then inserts a 3D-rendered image into each frame. If the action returns to that scene later, the software remembers where the object was placed and can display it from different camera angles and with relevant light sources.

But getting everything right can be tricky, admits Turner.

“You have to calculate the geometry in each scene,” he says. “Where is the camera pointing? What is the angle of the table? If the lighting is slightly different or the translucency doesn’t look right, human perception will immediately tell you it’s fake.”

Last September, Ryff announced a partnership with the Endemol Shine Group, the Netherlands-based producers of reality TV shows like MasterChef and Big Brother. Here, the company is working directly on set, placing a physical reference object into each scene, which can be digitally swapped out later for other objects. Once the object has been rendered and the metadata collected, it’s easy to re-render the scene later with virtually anything, says Turner.

But Ryff is not the first company to digitally embed brands into scenes. Mirriad has already launched several in-video advertising campaigns, inserting digital billboards for clients like T-Mobile and SEAT into the backgrounds of TV shows in the U.S. and France, respectively.

“Companies like ours connect viewers with a brand’s product messaging in a scalable way that is so incredibly realistic that they would never perceive it was seamlessly inserted after production,” claims Stephan Beringer, CEO for the London-based Mirriad.

Brand ambition

Ryff’s ultimate ambition is much grander, says CEO Roy Taylor. It intends to use online game engines—which routinely crank out high-res images to millions of players at 90 frames per second—to render unique products in real time for streaming video viewers.

This story first appeared in the April 15, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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