Virtual Advertising: Pixelated

Advertising may never be the same: A new technology makes it possible to project virtual images into live broadcasts.
Gary M. SternDecember 15, 2000

On November 6, 2000, some 60,000 fans squeezed into Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin, to watch a National Football League contest between the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers. The crowd saw a thrilling, nip-and-tuck game that ended with a Brett Favre touchdown pass in overtime. What the fans didn’t see — what Favre didn’t see, either — was a thin yellow first-down marker stretching across the field.

They didn’t see it because is wasn’t there. The yellow marker — created by a technology called pixel plasticity — was visible only to the television audience. Such virtual inserting, which goes well beyond just slapping an image onto a TV screen, is cropping up everywhere. Rugby clubs now project virtual ads on the pitch during fixtures. Major league baseball teams (the San Diego Padres, for instance) insert cyber-ads in a prime viewing area: on the backstop, directly behind the catcher. And during the Olympics, broadcaster NBC virtually placed the national flags of swimmers into each lane — at the bottom of the pool.

For viewers, virtual inserting can provide useful information, such as the speed of a fastball or the distance to a first down. For advertisers, the beauty of pixel plasticity is obvious: Ads become part of the action. What’s more, insertions can constantly be changed, from inning to inning, scrum to scrum. “Most people find advertising intrusive,” says Larry Novenstern, executive vice president for sales and marketing at Sportvision Inc. (, based in New York. “Now an advertiser is providing something of value.”

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Not everyone sees the value in virtual insertion, however. Certainly, pixel plasticity raises some thorny questions about what is real, what isn’t, and the ethics of altering broadcast images. Beyond those metaphysical matters, some critics think virtual insertion is just plain overkill. In a recently published interview, Michael Jacobson, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (, said: “It’s yet another incursion into the public life by marketers who are dreaming up every possible way to sneak into our consciousness.”

Marketers may not have any choice but to sneak in. New products such as TiVo and ReplayTV enable television viewers to skip commercials. As more viewers start to skip commercials — and they will — corporate advertisers will seek out new avenues to get their messages across. CFOs, eager to wring payback out of every advertising dollar, won’t just embrace virtual insertion — they’ll likely demand it. And not just in sporting events, either. “These insertions have greater impact for the advertisers because they’re in the program,” notes Dennis Wilkinson, president and CEO of Lawrenceville, NJ-based Princeton Video Image Inc. (, which created the Padres’ virtual billboard. “It’s unzappable.”

It’s also unstoppable. Already, a rerun of UPN’s Seven Days featured a virtual Wells Fargo ad plastered on a building, as well as a computer-generated can of Coca-Cola placed on a living room table. Not only were the two items not actually there, they weren’t in the original broadcast of the show, either.

Expect more of the same. As TVs and computers converge, advertisers predict corporations will look to tailor ads to individual watchers. Thus, one viewer might tune in to Frasier and see Niles Crane uncork a bottle of Dom Perignon, while another viewer sees him open a bottle of Asti Spumante. “We’re on the edge of a major transformation on TV,” says Wilkinson. “We’re offering advertisers eyeballs that they can’t guarantee anymore with 30-second spot advertising.” In a world in which it’s getting harder and harder to attract attention, the eyeballs have it.

Gary M. Stern is a contributor to eCFO.