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The New Age Ad

'Virtual Billboards' May Be a Boon for Businesses, but Will Viewers Take to Them?


Tennis star Gabriela Sabatini slammed the ball toward her opponent and dashed across the hard court surface at La Costa Resort--over a huge logo for Toshiba digital videodiscs--to prepare for the return.

At least, that's what you saw if you were watching the second round of last month's Toshiba Tennis Classic on the Prime Network cable TV channel. If you were in the stands at La Costa in Carlsbad, just outside San Diego, you saw Sabatini and Asa Carlsson playing on a pristine court free of corporate logos.

Fans of the San Francisco Giants have encountered the same mysterious phenomenon this year: Viewers of the team's home games on Bay Area television see advertisements seemingly painted over the backstop. Fans in the stands see a clean, ad-free wall.

The era of "virtual advertising" is upon us. The craft of manipulating reality has finally achieved the ultimate illusion--creating the advertising image itself out of thin air.

New electronic techniques are allowing advertisers to insert their pitches into television images in a way that makes them indistinguishable from physical reality--right down to their being obscured by passing shadows or players in the foreground.

The system allows previously unmarketed portions of the television screen to be sold to advertisers who don't even have to wait for breaks in the action to get their images before the viewers.

Thus the court surface at La Costa was sold to Toshiba, Lexus and the software maker Corel Corp.; the backstop at 3Com (formerly Candlestick) Park in San Francisco to Kellogg Co., Nissan Motors USA and GTE Corp., among others; and the space between the goal post uprights at one recent collegiate football game to computer maker Gateway 2000 Inc.

That's only the beginning. Advocates of the technology envision using it to transform entire playing fields into digital billboards manifest only on your TV screen.

"There is no reason why a soccer field could not be a MasterCard or a Visa card with people playing on it," says Bruce Maggin, executive vice president of ABC Multimedia Group, a unit of ABC Television.

No reason indeed, except that viewers might rebel. Concerned about jolting the audience, some advertisers are avoiding overly splashy ads. Sponsors of the Toshiba Tennis Classic, for instance, aimed for an understated look by displaying their logos in conservative black rather than color.

What's more, virtual ads are expensive. At 3Com Park, the price of a virtual ad behind home plate can be eight times that of a 30-second local broadcast commercial, which goes for as much as $5,000. That's because the virtual ads are sold by half-innings, which last longer than a TV spot.

This can make it hard to assess the relative value of virtual versus real. Nissan says it got its money's worth from a virtual ad in a July 18 game between the Giants and Dodgers mostly because a crucial play was repeated on local telecasts and on ESPN, giving the ad unusually prolonged life. The auto maker hasn't bought a virtual ad since, not only because of the cost, but also because of the limitations of a static image.

"We can get more of our message into a 30-second spot," says Barry Liston, marketing manager for Nissan USA's Northwest region.

Virtual advertising is done by electronically inserting images into a live TV broadcast, using the playing field as a map. Because a computer can detect players and other objects blocking the ad image from the foreground and make adjustments, the ads seem to be painted on the actual playing surface.

To some sports fans, this may represent the ultimate encroachment of advertising into athletics--going well beyond the recent innovation of naming sports arenas and even bowl games after high-paying corporate sponsors.

"I think people accept that they are going to see advertising," says Michael Kamins, associate professor of marketing at USC. "The issue is whether they see too much of it. And the answer is yes."

Even some TV executives question whether the technology goes too far. NBC, for example, chose not to insert ads into its Aug. 25 broadcast of the Toshiba tennis finals, in which Kimiko Date defeated Arantxa Sanchez Vicario.

"The technology is pretty neat, but once you get past that you ask yourself, does it really enhance anything at all or is it just another way to slice the [revenue] pie?" says John Miller, senior vice president of programming at NBC Sports. "It certainly doesn't enhance the viewers' experience at all."

To the broadcast industry at large, however, the technology represents an enticing new source of income at a time when established sports are demanding skyrocketing broadcast fees from networks and other telecasters.

Some television executives even contend the technology is a tool against channel surfing. With revenue from virtual ads, they argue, broadcasters won't need to air as many commercials, thus reducing the breaks in the action that give viewers an excuse to click the remote.

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