Among the most noticeable and frequently parodied forms of mainstream advertising, product placement distractingly stands out in scripted TV shows and films. Last year’s “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” featured essentially a self-contained Skittles commercial within the main action; one young character even loudly exclaims the company’s slogan, “Taste the Rainbow!,” as if unprompted.
Historically, this kind of marketing has felt much more organic and native on platforms like YouTube, and social media apps like TikTok. Unlike Hollywood films and TV shows, these videos aren’t attempting to simulate reality, or immerse viewers in an alternate world populated by fictional characters. They’re more intimate and personal by nature, at least theoretically offering glimpses into the everyday lives of creators and influencers. Indiana Jones pausing to take a sip of Diet Pepsi feels artificial and manufactured, a brand inserting itself into a realm in which it doesn’t belong. But a podcaster taking a sip of Diet Pepsi in between making their points doesn’t feel strange at all. They’d probably be taking a sip of something even if a camera weren’t turned on.
Nonetheless, as any creator who has actually worked with brands knows, these kinds of marketing deals bring with them all sorts of complexities. Companies don’t simply want their products to show up in the background somewhere, seemingly at random. They have specific ideas about how these products should be featured and used, ranging from how they’re positioned on camera to what kind of reactions they should inspire from hosts and guests alike. Navigating these sorts of deals, and pleasing sponsors, without compromising the content itself or losing that organic, personal touch, can be more multi-faceted and difficult than it sounds at first blush. And that’s even before legal departments get involved, with their extended checklists of do’s and don’ts and unexpected objections.
It’s here that technology may be able to intervene. A Palo Alto startup called Rembrand, founded in 2022, now offers “virtual product placements” to creators, digitally inserting ads and branded imagery into their videos in post-production. In one example, highlighted by the New York Times, TikToker Melissa Becraft dances in front of a digitally superimposed banner ad for the PepsiCo sparkling water brand Bubly.
The technology itself has been around for a few years, and already found its way onto major streaming platforms like Amazon Prime Video and Peacock. Also in 2022, Amazon demonstrated its first suite of Virtual Product Placement (or VPP) tools at its NewFronts presentation for advertisers. They demonstrated how virtual ads for products like M&Ms could be digitally inserted into their original scripted series, such as “Bosch: Legacy” or “Reacher.”
While the tech itself pre-dates the early 2023 AI explosion, Rembrand suggests that AI is nonetheless the key to making their virtual product placements work. Co-founder Omar Tawakol told NYT that the AI apps “take an existing scene and figure out how to put a product in it,” a process they’re able to complete after extensive training on physics, lighting, camera placement and distance, and motion. While the company’s early efforts focused on simple set-ups, like podcasts, in which the camera doesn’t move and the room remains relatively stationary, expanding to LinkedIn and TikTok required managing a vast new range of variables. (The plan is to move into Instagram videos next.) Bloomberg suggests that it currently takes the company a few hours to analyze a video and its setting before placing ads, but the company hopes to eventually get this all down to just a few minutes.
For scripted shows, virtual product placement brings a key advantage: longevity. Ads can be changed up over time, so reruns of “Reacher” five years from now can include new, relevant commercials rather than whatever random products happened to be available on set that day.
But for creators on platforms like TikTok, the VPP revolution brings even more potential benefits. Most notably, creators no longer have to fret about handling and talking about and featuring the products, working all of this promotion into otherwise personal or unrelated content. They don’t even have to hold the bottle in such a way that the camera can see the label and full logo. All of this exacting work falls into the hands of editors, post-production coordinators, and AI apps, that ensure that the digital inserts look right.
VPP tools could theoretically also expand the genres and kinds of influencer and creator videos that attract brand and marketing deals. For creators in brand-friendly categories like beauty, food, gaming, or tech, opportunities for advertising and promotion are pretty obvious. Make-up companies send new products to influencers who talk about cosmetics, while snack food brands can’t wait to preview their latest cheese puff innovations for popular reviewers. But other kinds of performers – like, say, people who dance on TikTok or perform in YouTube comedy sketches – may have huge audiences but fewer organic opportunities to hawk merchandise. Virtual background ads allow them to focus on doing what they do, while the apps figure out where to put the products.
In general, social media and internet audiences are far more forgiving when content is potentially “interrupted” by an ad. Noticing that a Coors Light has shown up in the midst of an otherwise intense procedural drama can shatter the immersion. But a can of Starry lemon-lime soda popping up while two guys make music Top 10 lists doesn’t isn’t really all that distracting, even if it clearly looks animated in an otherwise live-action setting.
Social media and influencer fandoms also tend to be more personally invested in their favorites scoring brand deals. It’s yet another milestone on the “journey to success” that savvy influencers have turned into a narrative for fans. (Taylor Swift, of course, is the queen of this version of celebrity/influencer marketing. Every new release or promotion is a victory that’s celebrated by her community, never a crass attempt to squeeze more money out of her followers. Perish the thought!) Fancy, high-tech advertisements that suddenly pop up in the background of a creator’s videos are an exciting development to be celebrated, and a huge opportunity, not a sellout move.
For now, Rembrand is limited to a cluster of 1,000 top creators, who already have pre-existing relationships with marketing agencies. The plan for later this year, however, is to expand into a “self-service” platform, where creators and brands can connect independently without the company hand-holding the relationship. As long as audiences don’t strenuously object, and the apps don’t suddenly develop a mind of their own and feature the soda cans TOO prominently, it’s hard to see this as anything but a win for creators, especially those in less product-friendly categories.