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, campaignlive.co.uk, 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
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
Whatever virtual advertising’s potential, one thing is certain: its
development will be a delicate balancing act.
PUT TO THE TEST
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.
HOW VIRTUAL ADVERTISING WORKS
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
WHAT THE ITC SAYS
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
This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk
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