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Product Placements Made Easier

SHERMAN OAKS, CALIF.—As software creators and the ad industry continue to meld traditional and non-traditional advertising in the digital era in search of innovative solutions, a handful of Fox and CBS affiliates in more than a dozen markets are now tapping into a fledgling system using a simple online template to locate pre-identified product-placement avails within syndicated content.

Given the sharp growth in digital post-production capabilities in recent years, the basic technology for high-quality digital insertion of national products like Ford and McDonald's, and local products, is not new. Yet one firm, SeamBI, currently is touting a system that it says allows local sales people to quickly identify and sell product avails within two syndicated sitcoms—"My Name is Earl" and "How I Met Your Mother" (the latter continuing in first-run, too, on CBS).


SeamBI said its proprietary software tool is being deployed at stations in 20 U.S. markets—including New York, Chicago, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Dallas, Houston, San Francisco and Cleveland. Its patented technology is designed to seamlessly integrate product (or message) placements into existing program content, i.e., background wall posters, kitchen table items such as juice, beer or food products, and even entire vehicles in street scenes. (Consequently, a TV character might drive off at the end of a scene in a brand new Honda Accord as a syndicated episode airs in Dallas, while in the same scene aired in Houston, she could be speeding off in a late-model Ford Explorer.)

This scene from “How I Met Your Mother,” shows the original setup (left), where product placement is available (middle), and the final placement (right).
Based in Sherman Oaks, Calif., SeamBI's system strives to create a mostly automated online process for salespeople to choose product placements from existing avails. According to SeamBI co-founder/CEO Roy Baharav, "What we're doing that's different from typical visual effects services is creating a new type of inventory called 'in-show ad units' for stations. We've set it up where a [product placement] has the same flexibility as a 30-second commercial. We work with the producers of the show to create opportunities within the content, and once the opportunity is designated, it becomes 'inventory.' It can be sold locally, regionally or nationally, depending on the wishes of the content owner."

As for the often sticky issue of content rights, Baharav said once an ad-placement opportunity has been added to the inventory, local salespeople are not required to go back to content owners for further approval; any pending restrictions and other rights issues are clearly noted and remain in effect. "For example, a content owner may not want fast-food services to be advertised within his or her show. That restriction remains in the inventory," Baharav said. "Once an order has been received, it has already been approved by the advertiser, the rendering farm is rendering the video, and then it sends a customized version of the episode at the relevant time directly to the station. Almost everything is automatic."

Baharav said his firm maintains its own creative team that works with content producers/owners. Localized, revised episodes are fed via secured lines to stations, with each episode formatted correctly (i.e., 4:3 or 16:9, or 1080i for most CBS stations; 720p for most Fox outlets). Upon transmission to a station, the localized content can be sent directly its on-air server. "This works on a daily basis in many markets, and we expect to expand very soon," Baharav said.


Bill Blake, national sales manager at KICU-TV in San Francisco-Oakland, an independent station, said this fledgling approach to digital-era advertising "has been well-received and taken advantage of by many of our local and national advertisers." He'd like to see it expanded to other programming.

"This non-traditional technology has been great for us to get new advertisers who might not have a traditional commercial [to use]. It's been good for increasing our shares and our dollars locally and nationally—from movie and automotive accounts to fast food and to retail," Blake said.

Local Sales Manager Izzy Aguinaga of CBS affiliate WOIO-TV in Cleveland thinks emerging ad-placement software tools provide stations with unique sales opportunities. "It's allowed us to expand the services we can offer our clients who are constantly looking for that 'extra advantage' over their competitors," Aguinaga said.

"It allows them to capture potential consumers outside general commercial-break parameters, and it can create buzz and excitement from the clients themselves. The execution of insertion orders has been made very simple, and that online ad-ordering system is user-friendly," said Aguinaga. WOIO is having success selling placement ads in four major ad categories: insurance, used auto, fast food, and legal, he said.

Jimmy Schaeffler, chairman of The Carmel Group, a consultancy in Carmel, Calif., said making digital product-insertions easier to identify and sell by local sales departments makes a lot of sense for TV advertising generally. "People will always be drawn to video, almost in a magical way," he said. "That's the essence of using [television] to tell stories—including [product placement] ads to sell products. From there, it becomes a matter of perfecting both the technology and the message…With these two items in place, it's such an easy leap of faith to believe ad placements and customized ads are the future of advertising."

Making product-placement ads at the local level easier to sell, Schaeffler said, could help balance out some of the losses the advertising industry has suffered in recent years at the hands of DVRs with Fast Forward options, as well as remotes with Mute buttons.

"In the end, viewers are searching for both entertainment and information," he said. "Using amazing technology such as automated [product placement] inventories and systems—along with the right message and the right timing—can 'touch' just about everyone. This can be the 'future Holy Grail' of ad-based television," said Schaeffler, who authored a book a couple of years ago on a cousin of digital product placements—digital signage.