The ability of AI to alter and improve images is excellent — and, in the case of deepfakes, occasionally alarming. Now we’ve got a new adjective to add: “incredibly obnoxious.” Meet the cutting-edge company that wants to bring product placement injection to just about anything.
The BBC has an interview up with Mirriad, a UK company that’s created technology allowing it to insert background advertising seamlessly into content that never contained the ads in the first place. This allows for new types of digital product placement, such as changing the labels on liquor bottles to an updated brand, inserting new advertising into Ocean’s 11, or “getting Charlie Chaplin to promote a fizzy drink.”
The BBC’s take on this technology focuses heavily on the idea of adding advertisements to classic films and movies. This seems, on balance, to be a less likely use of the technology. The advertisements, logos, and brand content of many movies can be argued to be a vital component of the work itself. The idea of updating Times Square advertisements in any given movie to more closely reflect real life might go over fine, but injecting modern ads or brands into classic films? Even though Mirriad provides some examples of the concept, as shown above and below, it’s hard to imagine the idea catching on widely. Small changes might slip past, but anything on the order of “Charlie Chaplin, but he’s selling White Claws” seems unlikely to fly.
According to Mirriad’s CEO Stephan Beringer, its technology is being used in China and it’s been tested by “the makers of hit US TV show Modern Family,” which would seem to imply ABC. The company’s pitch video, inserted below, shows products being inserted into videos before broadcast, but not necessarily the modification of classic content that’s already been released.
Back in the 1970s, the average person was exposed to between 500 and 1,600 ads per day, depending on profession and entertainment habits. Today, it’s estimated that we’re exposed to between 6,000 and 10,000 ads per day. These figures count exposure from all sources and have likely been much lower during the pandemic, but the amount of advertising we’re exposed to on a daily basis has been increasing for years. When I visited the Netherlands in 2014, the first thing I noticed was the complete lack of advertising in Amsterdam compared to any American city I’ve ever lived in or visited.
Mirriad’s technology is being used by music artists to add logos and product placement to music videos, in the hopes of driving additional income streams through sponsorships. In the future, Mirriad hopes to add new advertising to sports and concert broadcasters by inserting ads into broadcast content.
Mirriad’s technology is a genuinely interesting example of applied AI. Used judiciously, I’ve got no particular issue with it. As always, the problem comes down to the word “judiciously,” and humanity’s general inability to ascertain its meaning.
Take the “before” and “after” images Mirriad provided to the BBC, shown above. The producers of this content are working with Mirriad and are clearly okay with how the digital ad injection changes the nature of the scene above. I’m not going to second guess them — but I’d argue that the presence of a large Coke logo does change the nature of the scene. It implies that the people who live in this place are at least somewhat familiar with American products, and that at least one of those products — Coke — is a desirable commodity.
What’s the meaning of that change? As large or small as this: Had I seen only the original frame, I never would have thought of Coke at all. Seeing the second frame, my eye seizes on “Coca-Cola” as the one bit of English visible in-frame. The very familiarity of the logo in an otherwise unfamiliar scene catches my attention; I notice the American-ness of the logo precisely because it stands out in an otherwise unfamiliar street.
Had I seen only this second frame, devoid of any context, I might wonder if the artist was attempting to say something by juxtaposing the single English word against the rest of the photograph. I might think the artist was trying to say something about the nature of the values America had exported to the world, that “Coca-Cola” was the only English word in sight.
With context, we know that any such musing would be worse than useless. There was no ad when this video was shot and the director likely had no control over which logo or product would be advertised. The ability to update such details in a scene at will, independent of any artistic control exercised by the director, may represent a thrilling new revenue stream in the future, but it comes at the cost of narrative control and clouds the ability of the audience to trust its own understanding of authorial intent. Seamless digital ad injection encourages the proliferation of the technique as such a revenue stream, with potential positive impacts on struggling artists looking for funding, and potential negative impacts when it comes to the volume of advertising we’re all exposed to, each and every day.
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