ITV's announcement last week that it was testing a new form of overlay advertising tickled up some predictable mischief. One quality newspaper, perhaps out of confusion rather than any wilful intent, seemed to be implying that ITV is seeking to use this technology to add a new stream of advertising revenue to its broadcast output.
The next day, all manner of other news journalists were calling up Campaign, inviting us rather slyly to speak out against this potential wickedness - likely, surely, to undermine anything that's left of goodness and decency in British broadcasting, thus leading to a further debasement of our culture and national heritage.
Well, quite. We'd have agreed like a shot if only it were true. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your inclination) the ITV trial is a rather modest proposition. The likelihood is that it may not, of itself, bring Western civilisation to its knees.
It's a web-based technology, for a start. Even if it could be incorporated into the live broadcast stream, it would be illegal under the current Ofcom rules, which state that all but the most tangential brand references and product placements must be kept out of editorial content.
Developed by a US company called Keystream, it uses "object detection and tracking algorithms" to find suitable clear space in video sequences and to place an advertising overlay in that space.
In the clip accompanying the press release, the clear space is literally that - it's blue sky. In a piece about a charity bungee jump, as the jump cage ascends in a rather leisurely fashion becoming, eventually, a distant dot, there's an increasing amount of sky on show for a rather long time - and it's into this vacancy that a static little button appears. "Want to switch?" it asks. If you do, you click on this button and you're whisked off to a uSwitch site while the video stream is paused, awaiting your return.
1. The new technology is being tested on the ITV Local site. You can find it specifically within the Your News section, a showcase for user-generated content. The trial is for an initial three months, and, if successful, the technique may be extended to other areas of ITV-owned web output.
2. Overlay ad techniques have been around for several years. There have, for instance, been various attempts to get "blue screen" technologies off the ground in broadcast television. The theory, here, is that the perimeter boards of, say, a sports stadium at an international event will be left blank, so that they can be digitally overlaid with different advertising messages appropriate to different broadcast territories. Although technically possible, implementation problems have made this difficult to get off the ground.
3. There are now a number of companies offering software to run "contextual overlay advertising" within online video clips. As well as Keystream, which has also worked with Sony and the BBC in the past, there's Adap.tv and Overlay.tv. Google Video has also been experimenting with the technique - with a view to making YouTube a more profitable proposition.
4. Most broadcast companies are currently looking at ways in which new digital technologies might revolutionise audiovisual advertising - and one of the most important exploration areas is targeted advertising. This is already a reasonably well- rehearsed proposition in the online advertising world - but the operators of digital television decoders with hard drives, such as the Sky+ box, are believed to be developing systems that, in breaks during the replay of stored programmes, will serve ads that are targeted to each individual household.
Sky, for instance, can call upon a wealth of data derived from its 33,000 household Sky View panel and (drawing also on TNS data) is able to identify the households that are, say, loyal to a particular brand of breakfast cereal. That brand (or, indeed a rival brand) could tailor a message for those households and those households alone.
5. "Targeted substitutional advertising" could, in time, possibly be extended to live breaks in the real-time broadcast stream, with a different set of commercials served to each home in the land - though the technical challenges in achieving this are substantial.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...
- There's always a balance between the desire to innovate (and, equally importantly, from a marketing point of view, to be seen as an innovator) and the knowledge that some innovations can thoroughly alienate your precious audience.
- Traditionalists will find overlay advertising easy to ridicule when it's being trialled by a broadcaster with a heritage of quality broadcasting. It's not likely to be appropriate to, for instance, reruns of Poirot on ITV.com.
- But all mainstream media owners are competing ferociously this autumn to prove that they're "with it", and initiatives like this could play well to agencies desperate to impress their clients with potentially exciting new ideas.
- Just because a thing is possible doesn't automatically mean it's worth doing, especially if it irritates people. That said, there are still plenty of advertisers willing to risk alienating their audience in the static online world with all manner of awesomely irksome pop-ups, overlays and interstitials.
- Interestingly, Howard Nead, a managing partner at PHD, reckons that overlay advertising could actually work best in decent-quality video environments. He says: "It's certainly worth considering where it's relevant and interesting. There may be a certain amount of nervousness about using it in a user-generated environment where the quality is not always high and there is lots of other interaction. It may have a clearer role to play within professionally made content."