THE BACK PAGES

Will & Grace loved their Maclean’s

Why would U.S. sitcom stars be eating Pizza Pizza? It’s called virtual product placement.

JOHN INTINI June 26 2006
THE BACK PAGES

Will & Grace loved their Maclean’s

Why would U.S. sitcom stars be eating Pizza Pizza? It’s called virtual product placement.

JOHN INTINI June 26 2006

Will & Grace loved their Maclean’s

media

Why would U.S. sitcom stars be eating Pizza Pizza? It’s called virtual product placement.

JOHN INTINI

During the last couple of

seasons of Will & Grace, it seemed that Eric McCormack, the show’s Toronto-born star, was ordering from his favourite Canadian pizza joint. Truth is, the Pizza Pizza box and company logo, which also appeared on a salad container and the spine of a phone book, were totally virtual—integrated into the show from an edit suite long after shooting wrapped. This form of camera trickery is the latest way networks are battling those commercialskipping technologies, like personal video recorders, that are killing the advertising star.

In addition to providing TV networks with new money shot, virtual ads allow Canadian advertisers to align themselves with top-rated U.S. shows that wouldn’t otherwise be accessible—or affordable. “You can’t just call the American producers of a show and say, ‘We have this great deal with product X, can you put it in the show?’ ” says Susan Arthur, CHUM Television’s director ofmarketing. “They’d be like ‘Hello?! McFly!?!’ We don’t have leverage. But virtual product placement provides that opportunity.”

In a primitive form, virtual advertising has been used for several years by Global TV to hawk Canadian brands—a virtual Primus blimp, a virtual billboard ad for Canadian Tire—during NFL broadcasts. Now, technological advances have led to much bolder applications. And Global continues to lead the pack. (CHUM may enter the game later this year; CTV doesn’t use the strategy on the main market, while TSN, their sports channel, uses it on a limited basis.) For a couple of years now, Global has digitally inserted consumer products into several of its hit U.S. programs—including Will & Grace,

The Apprentice and The Apprentice: Martha

Stewart. (It is currently considering options for Rock Star: Supernova, which starts in July.)

Much of the high-tech wizardry that goes into Global’s virtual ads is done by PVI, New Jersey-based media company. Editors spend hours blending a two-dimensional image of a product into a show, shot by shot. “Scenes with little variation in lighting and a steady camera work best,” says Nezik Tahri, an art director with Global. “When there are harsh camera movements the graphic may not move well with the shot. The product can’t shift a millimetre. It has to be seamless.” Virtual products are often added to the background or foreground of a scene, be it box of Splenda on a kitchen shelf, or a package of Tylenol on a coffee table in Will & Grace. But transition shots—usually outdoor city images—provide a blank canvas on which to plaster ads. “They’re usually only three seconds,” says Tahri, “but they have an impact because there are no competing elements.” Like traditional product placement, virtual ads must strike a balance between being noticed and not slapping viewers in the face. The most overt example of the practice showed up in the closing scene of this season’s Apprentice. During Global’s Ontario simulcast, the New York cab that whisks away the Donald’s castoff each week displayed an ad for Orillia, Ont.-based Casino Rama (it

replaced the original Yahoo! Jobs ad). “The viewer is riveted to that scene,” says Gaye McDonald, vice-president of marketing with CanWest MediaWorks, “making it a wonderful opportunity.”

Virtual ads can also be cheaper to buy than traditional advertising and standard product placement. The Casino Rama ¡Apprentice deal reportedly cost less than $10,000 an episode. A 30-second spot on the same broadcast is $36,000. And while virtual ads still make up an inconsequential sliver of Canada’s $ 3-billion TV advertising market, they are on the minds of executives at every major network, in large part because they provide an unregulated revenue source. The CRTC monitors virtual ads, but has no plans to force networks to include them in the 12 minutes of ad time permitted during each 60minute slot (traditional product placement is not included, either).

Although characters have no interaction with virtual products, there is always room for post-production creativity. Last season, Global inserted Cadbury’s Caramilk bars into several episodes of Martha Stewart’s Apprentice—in one scene, a bar was placed right beside her while she worked on her computer. “We can show the entire bar wrapped in the package in one scene,” says McDonald. “Then in the next scene, we show it broken into pieces to make it look like the person is eating it.” Proof, if you needed it, that you really shouldn’t believe everything you see on TV. M