Virtual ads grab more attention from marketers

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Marketers are slowly turning to virtual ads -- computer-inserted brand messages designed to look like part of the scenery, stadium or a TV show's set.

Nordstrom and Harrah's floated them above the crowd on CBS' pre-Grammy show; Home Depot and TD Waterhouse regularly place them behind home plate; Northern Light and ABC Sports had them hovering in the grass around the turns of the Indianapolis 500 last weekend. And the college football crowd will see them branding the superimposed yellow first-down line during as many as 10 of CBS Sports' 17 NCAA game broadcasts this fall.

Denny Wilkinson, president-CEO of Princeton Video Image, is confident enough that entertainment TV will follow live sporting events into the virtual technology that his company is participating in the TV upfront season this year for the first time, talking to marketers and producers about including virtual product placement in TV shows. "We're hoping to come out of this with some real movement," said Mr. Wilkinson, who would not say whether he has inked any deals as a result.

The same technology used to create the virtual logos can insert products into taped TV shows.

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He predicted Princeton Video's revenue could easily quadruple from this year's expected $3 million with the increasing popularity of virtual spots. It is expected product placement costs would equal the cost of a 30-second spot on a show.

Among those planning virtual product placement is Mike Weiden, president of ad sales for Pearson Television, New York, who expects to use the technology in episodes of the second season of the syndicated "Baywatch Hawaii."

Princeton Video, which has inserted virtual ads in regional sporting events for several years, went national in 1999 when CBS Sports began including the yellow, virtual first-down line during NFL games and CBS' "The Early Show" began using virtual logo images during the morning news. CBS also used the technology on New Year's Eve to replace the NBC peacock logo on a Times Square sign with the CBS eye during Dan Rather's New Year's broadcast.

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But Mr. Wilkinson emphasized that virtual ads are not designed to block ads. "We won't cover up signs without permission of the rights-holder and broadcaster." Journalistic ethics aside, CBS owned the rights to the Dan Rather broadcast so it had the right to block the NBC ad.

When the San Diego Padres began using virtual ads behind home plate during Cox Communications' home game broadcasts in 1997, the team offered free ads during the first half-season. The space has been sold out every season since 1998. Sponsors pay $85,000 for a half-inning of ad time on 70 games during the season, said Sam Kennedy, director of corporate development for the Padres. Sponsors include AutoZone, Carl's Jr., Home Depot, Pacific Bell and Toyota Motor Sales USA.

Carl's Jr., a 938-store fast-food chain, uses its yellow star logo behind home plate for a half-inning on Padres games.

"One of the things we enjoy most about the signage is the animation," said Mark Hardison, manager-regional marketing. "The star rotates and then shows the speed of the pitch. It's something that has the ability to engage the audience."

Eventually, Mr. Wilkinson hopes to allow baseball viewers to order a pizza using the virtual logo from behind home plate or to allow a car dealer to target an ad to a TV viewer, who according to a cable company profile, is in the market for a new car.

Last week the company announced partnerships with RealNetworks and Engage to insert virtual, interactive ads into streaming video on the Internet. RealPlayer users will be able to click on the virtual ads to get product information or make an e-commerce purchase, Mr. Wilkinson said.

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