Entertainment companies are eager to make virtual product placement happen. That doesn’t make it easy.

While the capabilities exist, some challenges are emerging as advertisers and networks test it out.
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· 5 min read

In 2007, a cutting-edge technology made its debut on NBC’s 30 Rock in the form of a joke. SeinfeldVision, as it’s dubbed in the comedy’s Season 2 premiere, digitally inserts 3D versions of Jerry Seinfeld into shows like the fictitious MILF Island without the comedian ever actually appearing on set.

Sixteen years later, MILF Island is basically a real show, and a technology once dreamt up for a punchline is basically a reality. Only this time, it’s packages of M&Ms and bottles of soda being dropped into TV shows, not comedians.

Virtual product placement got some time in the spotlight in 2022, when NBCUniversal and Amazon announced their intent to beta test tools that can virtually place ads and products into select shows. Nearly a year later, though, digital product placement is still far from ubiquitous across television screens—which is why some networks are investing in new tech and partners in an effort to address some of the pain points that have emerged.

NBCUniversal, for example, announced this month that it had partnered with the ad-tech firm TripleLift in the spirit of making virtual product placement scalable and, eventually, personalized, Jenny Burke, NBCUniversal’s EVP, advertising strategy, said.

Don’t be weird

In theory, virtual product placement is designed to make putting brands into shows easier for everyone involved. Traditional product placement requires brand involvement during show production, which can be years before its premiere. Adding in brands after the fact means that companies can get involved later in the process and still reap the potential benefits of in-show placements. Plus, specific products can, in theory, be swapped out depending on which viewers are watching.

“Where virtual product placement has a real opportunity is for certain types of brands that don’t require hands-on interaction, that don’t require verbal mentions, where you can still have [items] prominently placed within the frame or within the screen,” Aaron Frank, SVP of marketing, insights, and strategy at BENLabs, which helps brands with traditional and virtual product placement, explained.

It’s also a potential time-saver for brands looking for a quicker turnaround on placement, Frank noted. But as NBCUniversal has learned, quicker doesn’t exactly mean fast. In some of the handful of tests NBCU ran, it could take as long as six months to get a virtual product placement squared away, Burke said.

“It’s a long cycle,” she admitted. “It takes a lot of time to get creative approval from the shows, to actually find the right product placement, to have the art and design of it look exquisite so that the consumer isn’t like, ‘That’s not real.’”

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Cutting that time frame in half or more was one impetus for partnering with TripleLift, which has built a platform to power programmatic ad placement inside content across networks and platforms, Burke said; another is to help identify potential opportunities for product placement through AI scans of programming.

As the tech continues to grow, NBCUniversal is working on implementing other guidelines, including frequency caps for placements, Burke said.

What to expect

For brands interested in virtual product placement, the opportunities to take advantage of it are still few and far between. The majority tend to be in NBCUniversal, Amazon, and Lifetime programming in which the distributor also owns the content itself, Frank told us. A+E Networks, which owns Lifetime, also places virtual products in unscripted History Channel series, with the most interest coming from food, beverage, and spirits brands, as well as automakers and aftermarket auto products.

Virtual product placement can involve some legwork for brands, which have to build or procure a digital model of their products so they can be inserted into shows in post production without sticking out like a sore thumb, Frank said. And don’t expect for that product to get picked up or otherwise handled in the show: The technology is just not there yet for it to look realistic.

Another limitation is that virtual placements often have an expiration date. Based on the deals BENlabs facilitates, buys generally include a certain number of impressions or a certain number of TV airings before the product evaporates from the show, Frank said.

Of course, there’s another option for brands interested in the benefits of product placement: going the old-fashioned route. From the CPMs Frank has seen, he told us, virtual product placement right now actually costs more than traditional product placement—and brand awareness is often higher when a product is part of a storyline than just a blip on the screen.

“For other brands, the more traditional means of product placements still continue to be a better opportunity,” Frank said. “They can get those hands-on moments. They can get the verbal mentions. And they also are in the content in perpetuity.”

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