THE VIRTUES OF VIRTUAL ADS - Imagine, it’s extra time in the Cup Final and the atmosphere is tense. Would TV viewers really appreciate the sight of spinning logos in the goalmouth? Meg Carter assesses the impact of virtual advertising

By MEG CARTER,, Friday, 05 September 1997 12:00AM

Remember Gordon Brown, standing on the steps of Number 11 Downing Street before his first Budget speech? He was surrounded by smiling apprentices who had presented him with a new Budget box. In one subsequent newspaper photograph, the apprentices were mysteriously missing - having been digitally removed. Now advertisers are getting in on the act as new technology enables the digital alteration of commercial messages during TV broadcasts.

Remember Gordon Brown, standing on the steps of Number 11 Downing

Street before his first Budget speech? He was surrounded by smiling

apprentices who had presented him with a new Budget box. In one

subsequent newspaper photograph, the apprentices were mysteriously

missing - having been digitally removed. Now advertisers are getting in

on the act as new technology enables the digital alteration of

commercial messages during TV broadcasts.

Opinion is divided on the results.

Virtual advertising is the insertion of computer-generated images of

brands or advertising messages within broadcast coverage of sports


Executions can range from the discreet - such as an Allied Domecq

experiment with the EPSIS system on Sky Sports - to the downright

intrusive, as typified by one recent US football match where, as players

prepared to score, computer-generated spinning logos appeared between

the goal-posts.

To advocates, the benefits are clear - virtual ads allow a single feed

of an international sports event to be tailored for different


’This could be by a single advertiser eager to run ads for different

brands in different territories, or by a number of different advertisers

using the technology in different countries for different products,’

Simon Halden, the managing director of the International Sports Group,


His company is working with Symah Vision to develop its EPSIS virtual


The result is greater flexibility and better value for the brand


’It allows advertisers to ’buy’ an event and effectively offset the cost

by the chance to trade ’spare space’,’ Patrick Burton, the media manager

at Allied Domecq, says. And, he adds, the potential is not just

restricted to TV sports. ’Music television will be a future growth area.

As will product placement in films. We could have gin appear in prints

in Eastern Europe and Kahlua in the US, for example.’

Virtual advertising also offers the chance to overcome tobacco and

alcohol advertising bans. Formula One is a likely beneficiary as it

relies heavily on tobacco advertisers whose messages are restricted when

races are held in France, England and Germany. Next year’s football

World Cup in France could be another area of interest. Under the French

Loi Evin, alcohol advertising in football stadia is banned.

’One of the main event sponsors is Anheuser-Busch,’ Bill Wilson, the

commercial director of the Scottish Football Association, explains.

’However, the company will not be allowed to advertise products such as

Budweiser on conventional perimeter hoardings. Virtual advertising could

enable them to overcome this.’

Above all there is the potential to deliver advertising’s Holy Grail -

advertising which, because it is an integral part of editorial coverage,

cannot be zapped. However, therein lies the problem for opponents of

virtual advertising. The technology is little more than an excuse for

greater volume and more intrusive advertising, they claim, pointing to

the excesses of US sports TV where viewers are already exposed to

spinning virtual logos and messages which may detract from the game.

Ian McCulloch, the operations director at Laser Sales, expresses fears

about the broadcast quality of the doctored TV signal. And he questions

the degree of flexibility it offers advertisers in certain sports.

’Formula One’s strength as an advertising proposition lies in its global

coverage and global appeal,’ he explains. ’As soon as you break out

feeds regionally and run different ads in different territories, teams

would find it harder to evaluate the sponsor’s message.’

Another UK TV source goes further: ’There’s a danger that it will become

a double-edged sword. The Independent Television Commission currently

allows tobacco branding on coverage originated outside the UK but shown

on UK TV. What if it specified that UK broadcasters could only carry the

feed by using virtual advertising to block tobacco messages?’

Outdoor media sources have claimed that virtual advertising will devalue

the worth of conventional hoardings, even leading to potential conflict

between virtual advertisers and the event sponsors.

But Keith Impey, director of Sports & Outdoor Media (owned by ISG),

dismisses such claims. ’Actually, it’s self-regulating,’ he says. To

work, virtual advertising relies on the co-operation of the sports

governing body, the broadcaster and the advertiser. ’Everyone in this

loop can potentially put a spanner in the works. So to work, everyone

must be happy.’

Championing the development of virtual ads are sports organisers and

governing bodies. ’There’d be no point in developing it if there weren’t

financial gain,’ Wilson observes. He sees potential to charge

advertisers a premium for the improved flexibility it promises or to

develop packages of smaller advertisers buying into international

coverage of major events, territory by territory.

Tom Keaveny, the sales director of Eurosport, is another fan. ’Virtual

advertising has significant potential - especially as broadcasters

increasingly take over controls of sports events, effectively becoming

sports organisers,’ he believes. ’It focuses the viewer on where the

action is. And it allows a major ground sponsor to tailor messages by

territory - a major proposition for us when negotiating a deal.’

Many other broadcasters, however, remain wary. Allied’s recent test took

18 months to get on air during which time there were talks with the BBC,

’on editorial grounds’, Burton reveals.

Concern focused on the quality of the doctored signal and the likely

impact on audiences. ’Will viewers regard virtual ads as intrusive or

excessive?’ they asked ’And will regulators insist the ads are taken as

part of the recommended ceiling for hourly commercial minutage?’

Brinsely Dresden of the law firm, Lewis Silkin, and he has been

examining just these implications. ’When the content of editorial

coverage contains advertising, the traditional differentiation between

advertising and editorial is inevitably eroded,’ he observes. ’It is a

tricky area.’ However, he believes the minutage argument to be a red

herring. Broadcasters are already allowed to treat perimeter and

on-shirt advertising as part of editorial rather than advertising

airtime, he points out. ’Counting it otherwise just wouldn’t be


There are, however, contractual implications that all sports advertisers

and sponsors must start to consider, Dresden adds. As is already the

case with many broadcast sponsorship deals, event sponsors must ensure

their contracts take account of future virtual deals - demanding first

options of ’not without our approval’ clauses.

Good news for the legal profession, then. But what about the viewer?

For obvious reasons, the four key technology players involved are coy in

their response. ’We can’t afford to alienate the audience - it would

make the whole exercise pointless,’ Alan Avnon, executive vice-president

of SciDel Europe, insists. In fact, the technology ’can help clean up

sports advertising’, he says.

It would allow more in-stadia ads in countries where appropriate -

offering additional opportunities for local brands - and less in more

sensitive territories.

Whatever virtual advertising’s potential, one thing is certain: its

development will be a delicate balancing act.


Allied Domecq tested EPSIS on Sky Sports during the Australia versus

England rugby test in Sydney in early July. Virtual ads for Laphroiag,

Teacher’s, Harvey’s Bristol Cream and Cockburn’s Port were rotated on a

virtual hoarding. Footage from Australia was doctored by a unit

positioned at Sky’s Osterley headquarters. The end result was seen only

in the UK.

SciDel was used to emblazon Black & Decker logos on the football pitch

during the Standard Liege v Benfica match in July. Doctored footage was

broadcast in Portugal. Viewers in Belgium saw localised Belgian brands

in the same position. Another recent SciDel test involved on-court

virtual branding during coverage of the ATP Tour shown in France,

Germany and Italy. Consumer research showed it achieved 60 per cent

unprompted audience recall.

Princeton Video Image has struck a deal with the San Francisco Giants

baseball team to provide electronic billboards for games. Virtual

advertising has been generated live, adjusting to camera angles and

allowing players to walk in front of it as if it were a real sign.


The technology behind virtual advertising originated in the defence

industry where, following the end of the Cold War, companies developed

new ways to commercially exploit military navigation and tracking

expertise. There are four key players in the virtual advertising


EPSIS has been pioneered by Symah Vision, part of the French defence to

media group, Lagadere.

ORAD is a system jointly marketed by IVS - a joint initiative between

the sports marketing giant, ISL, and Israel’s Orad Hi Tech Systems.

SciDel has been developed by SciDex, an Israeli-based company with

offices in Europe and the US.

L-VIS is a US system developed by Princeton Video Images.

Like the recipe for Coca-Cola, how each system works - and differs -

remains a closed secret.

’Each has its strengths, each has its weaknesses,’ Simon Halden,

managing director of the International Sports Group, based in London,


Thom TerStege, the general manager of IVS Marketing, adds: ’All of us

have developed our own systems which, for obvious reasons, we do not

discuss in public - although ours is the most recent on the market and

is therefore one of the most advanced.’ In fact, the technology used by

all the systems is rapidly advancing and the basic principle behind each

is the same.

In essence, virtual advertising technology doctors TV coverage of a

sports event before broadcast. Virtual images are inserted, enabling

different brands or even advertisers to be seen within the same basic

feed in different countries.

’Virtual advertising allows you to ’narrowcast’ different messages

simultaneously,’ Halden explains.

’It has the potential to allow 100 different countries to see sports

coverage of a single event with 100 different sponsors’ messages, or 100

different variations of a single message.’

The technology can be applied to the footage of an event at that event

with a special unit sitting alongside the outside broadcast unit

shooting the coverage. Or, it can be applied to footage transmitted via

satellite to the headquarters of the technology provider where it is

doctored before footage is then transmitted via satellite around the


Alternatively, it can be applied at the headquarters of the broadcaster

responsible for relaying coverage to viewers in a particular country -

as was the case with a recent Allied Domecq/EPSIS test on Sky



Earlier this year, the Independent Television Commission issued a

guidance note on virtual advertising as a postscript to its revised

broadcast sponsorship code.

The Commission acknowledged the existence and future growth of virtual

ads, although with certain provisos:

- Footage containing virtual advertising images must be clearly labelled

as such to aid transparency for the viewer.

- Virtual advertising should be used as an alternative to ads already

present within the footage, instead of in addition to.

- Broadcasters retain control and responsibility for the coverage and in

no way compromise editorial integrity.

- Broadcasters should have no direct involvement in securing virtual

advertising deals and do not profit from them (a contradiction to the

previous point, some observers feel).

- Virtual advertising must not be used to circumvent the ITC’s ban on

tobacco advertising.

This article was first published on


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