Can AI revive the ‘glory days’ of product placement?

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Matthew Taylor
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Reese’s Pieces and a homesick alien changed the world of advertising forever. The iconic 80s movie E.T. was responsible for one of the most memorable and earliest examples of product placement.

In a scene embedded in pop culture, the titular alien is coaxed into the safety of Elliott’s house with a trail of candy, signalling the beginning of the product- placement boom. After E.T., there was no need to wait for the ads – they become part of the entertainment experience.

A lot has changed since 1982, and such obvious product placement has fallen out of fashion. But, thanks to generative AI technology, it might be making a comeback. Through GenAI, the product – candy or otherwise – isn’t placed in the scene in reality; it’s added virtually in a way that is as non-intrusive as possible for viewers. A YouTuber, for example, can continue a makeup tutorial while a branded item pops up on their vanity table, and disappears just as quickly.

You’re probably thinking that featuring a real product is more convincing than a digital copy. It might seem almost counterintuitive to use a virtual object in place of the real thing. Shouldn’t it be subtly – and non-intrusively – placed in the background?

The COO and chief product officer of ad tech firm Rembrand, David Wiener, touted the benefits of this new approach: “What’s been interesting about this space is that, in certain situations, actually doing it virtually – placing objects around a video virtually – allows you to tell a story in a better way as a brand than actually having a physical product just sit there.”

A very basic example? Rembrand worked with laundry detergent brand Tide to promote its new stain removal pen product by “virtually creat[ing] a stain on someone’s shirt, and then show[ing] – virtually – the pen kind of floating into the scene, erasing that stain,” noted David.

The idea is to organically integrate the product while showing its value proposition. But will gen Z viewers take the bait?

Podcaster Zach Justice thinks so. The social media personality outlined the main problem with getting viewers to watch the traditional video ads that influencers rely on as part of their revenue stream: “[They] go grab a sandwich while the ad is on … [gen Z is] so ingrained to having that ad break and [their] brains turning off”.

Meanwhile, GenAI product placement doesn’t demand anything from the presenter or influencer: “All you have to do is upload a video. I don’t have to do anything else … it’s just another form of revenue,” added Zach.

As AI placement becomes more commonplace, David believes it can exist alongside other advertising without cannibalisation. Typical placements run for up to 30 minutes compared to a standard 15-second pre-roll ad. And creators still have the freedom to do dedicated sponsor segments.

The only issue is one that has already plagued traditional product placement: annoying an audience. No one wants a repeat of the cringey Mountain Dew robot in Transformers, or the Subway ad in the Hawaii Five-O reboot when a character spent a scene extolling the virtues of their sandwiches.

The key to success lies in striking a delicate balance. Brands must ensure their virtual placements are subtle enough to avoid alienating viewers, yet impactful enough to leave a lasting impression. So, no different to what has gone before.

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