New York That can of Coke on your favorite sitcom character's table sure looks real. But it may be a computerized image inserted after the program was shot.
Even more amazing: That can of Coke may poof! become a can of Pepsi the next time the episode is aired.
Virtual product placement is taking off as the fall TV season gets under way.
Critics say the technology could let advertising gain control over program content, and may eventually raise privacy concerns. But backers say the technique actually helps viewers and holds enormous economic potential.
"We really think this is a huge opportunity to generate new revenue for the makers of TV shows," said Denny Wilkinson, president and CEO of Princeton Video Image Inc., the Lawrenceville, N.J.-based company that patented the technology.
"We're working with all the major networks right now," he said, raising the prospect that sponsored images could soon appear on major first-run TV broadcasts.
Wilkinson declined to say what deals are in the works.
A new twist
Product placements in TV shows and movies have been around for years. When Ford introduced the Mustang in 1964, the car appeared in the James Bond film "Goldfinger."
In CBS's "Survivor" reality show last spring, products from Bud Light to Mountain Dew showed up in the Australian Outback. Virtual product placement offers a new twist.
At last year's Super Bowl, discount broker Charles Schwab paid to have colored signs inserted into the hands of fans, so that international viewers saw "Schwab" spelled out in the stands. Princeton ads also popped up in preseason games of the Philadelphia Eagles and the Minnesota Vikings.
Princeton Video Image Inc. has been leading the charge toward virtual advertising since the company's founding in 1990.
In an experiment in March 1999, Princeton secretly inserted a Coca-Cola can and other products into an episode of UPN's now-canceled drama, "Seven Days."
Princeton also was the company behind the first interactive virtual advertising. During a broadcast of a baseball game on WGN-TV last summer, viewers with digital set-top boxes were able to click on virtual ads to get information.
Now the company is hoping to find a syndicator that would agree to products being placed virtually into reruns.
"We as a company are indeed talking to Princeton Video, but we don't know what deals might come out of this," said Mark Harrad, a spokesman in New York for the Turner Broadcasting System division of AOL Time Warner.
A dangerous blend?
Digital advertising could be a boon for advertisers, who have grown jittery over the ability of click-happy viewers to bypass commercials.
And the technique's flexibility is particularly appealing. A bag of Doritos shown in one broadcast could be replaced by a package of Pringles the next time the show is aired.
But critics say it's dangerous to blend too much advertising with content.
"Pretty soon the whole TV schedule will be nothing but product placements," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a Washington watchdog group. "The one-time wall separating advertising from content is being obliterated."
"People are becoming so immune to advertising it's scary," said Mary Ann Watson, a professor of telecommunications and film at Eastern Michigan University. "It's like a dripping faucet. You're bothered at first, and six weeks later you don't notice it any more."
Watson and others worry about what will come next.
A new generation of television set-top boxes might be able to identify a viewer's interests through their Internet usage so that networks can target different segments of viewers with different kinds of virtual ads.
This practice, critics argue, could raise privacy concerns.
"A family might see a virtual image of a station wagon inserted into a program, while their single neighbor might see a virtual image of a sports car," Chester said. "This is a kind of creeping fungus that will invade our lives in ways we never thought possible."