‘When was the last time you watched – and I mean really watched an advert?’ asks CBC Spark reporter Nora Young. Most of us would answer: ‘I can’t even remember’, and that’s at the root of the problem. We are a ’fast-forward generation’ that knows how to skip through, block, or just leave the room whenever an ad appears. This inevitably leads to more aggressive tactics by advertisers, and the more they force their products on consumers, the more they refuse them. So, what is the solution? Mirriad claims they know! This company specializes in software which integrates handpicked, demographically tailored, adverts into moving images/programmes without interrupting the viewer’s experience.
The UK-based company was founded in 2008 with the intention to revolutionize advertising with a pioneering video technology. They target the so-called ‘skip generation’ – the generation of consumers from six to sixty who now bypass traditional video ads. Mirriad’s technology allows the creation of an unobtrusive contextual look for digitally integrated product placement which is inserted into already existing television programming, music videos and, with time, films. This guaranteed exposure is the Holy Grail for advertisers and the brands and agencies that use Mirriad to manage and run multi-title campaigns are assured their marketing is “media-planned and tuned for reach and frequency in exactly the same way they currently buy advertising that appears outside the content” (mirriad.com).
Since its inception Mirriad has struck deals with numerous major companies including Vevo, Universal Music Group and French advertising giant, Havas. According to Ted Mico, chairman of Mirriad, they had their eyes on digital content from the beginning, but when they started their business the climate of the market was more favourable to television. Those who live in the UK have already been exposed to these sorts of seamless inserts. A Bentley was changed to a Mitsubishi in several Hannibal (2013-present) episodes, and in an old rerun of White Collar (2009-2014) an unimportant blank surface was retroactively changed into a Subway shop window (Davis Fenning).
In 2014, Mirriad refocused on digital advertising (Nora Young). Mico points out that currently music videos dominate the online landscape. According to a Nielsen study 58 billion views out of a total 118 billion (almost 50 per cent) are of music videos. This indicates the importance of Mirriad’s deal with Universal Music Group (UMG). From now on, Grand Marnier – one of the first advertisers to hop on the Mirriad train – will be looming at the back of countless music videos from artists like Avici, No Doubt, and other partners of UMG. Did you notice, for instance, something that wasn’t there two years ago in Aloe Blacc’s 2013 music video ‘The Man’? The brand new, retroactive Levi’s billboard at the back of a number of shots he walks through in the frame is an example of the seamless integration one can expect to see more of in the future (Jason Newman).
Mirriad’s innovative technology won an Academy Award in 2013 for Advancement in Technology. Interestingly, MarathonVentures and SeamBI (Seamless Brand Integration) pioneered the idea of digital product placement first in the US, long before Mirriad (Andrew Flannagan). SeamBi were responsible for inserting Bad Teacher (2011) posters and other contemporary adverts into How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014) reruns. The technology they used was similar to web and/or native advertising, which differs from traditional commercial breaks by advertising within the programmes, closely resembling (or at least not strikingly different from) the characteristic of the original platform (Steve Rose). However, over the past two years SeamBI has disappeared from the marketing landscape without a trace. Since then Mirriad has no significant competitor on the market.
Sites such as Facebook, Twitter or Google use two distinctive methods to advertise: platform and programmatic advertising. Platform advertising relates to the visual forms the adverts can take – open, hybrid or closed – and it is important to the publishers and advertisers to know “which platform would best fit their monetization strategy” (StackAdapt). Meanwhile the significance of programmatic advertising is demonstrated in its ability to ensure that the most relevant ad is placed on all sites by serving “each ad unit on an impression-by-impression level” which “leverages real-time data and decision making” (StackAdapt). This technique is presented as “a form of advertising that integrates high quality content into the organic experience of a given platform through native advertising units that conform to the design and feel of the site on which it displays. This preserves the immersive user experience while producing click through rates like that of editorial content” (StackAdapt). Native advertising is often controversial. Not long ago, The Atlantic “whipped the internet into a frenzy” by giving platform to a sponsored ad by the Church of Scientology (Jared Keller). The ad looked exactly like any other article on the site save the little yellow banner identifying it at as a ‘sponsored content’. The majority of the magazine’s readers are sceptical about the Church of Scientology; therefore, placing that particular advert was divisive. As Lucia Moses notes, it stirred up the media and the viewers because it went against the general rule of this type of advertising. “The reason brands like native ad treatments is that they look and feel like a site’s typical content, and theoretically have less chance of being completely ignored”. Now in this case, the ad was unfortunately pretty ‘out of place’ and Havens, president of The Atlantic, admitted the mistake and issued new guidelines to govern their native ad policy. Similarly to The Atlantic, which is at the cutting edge of native advertising, Mirriad will need to be careful with their innovative brand integration and similarly adopt a filter system to avoid these types of blunders.
Mirriad follows the native advertising technique but takes it further. Ads can be targeted according to the age, salary, gender, geographical location, and the education of the viewer. Mirriad says they are the “cure for ad blindness, with research proving brands are two times more likely to be top of mind with consumers watching native in-video ads than comparable pre-rolls or interstitial spots”(mirriad.com). They claim to have found the key ingredient in advertising: integration. Since the ads are inside the content, they cannot be skipped. The fact that they are so seamlessly placed maximizes brand visibility and minimizes interruption of the viewing experience (mirriad.com). After just a few years, Mirriad now has partners including Fox, Sony TV, ITV, Viacom, Discovery Channel and Sky; and clients such as Sony Music, Sony Pictures, Pizza Hut, Nestlé, Coca Cola, Sony Ericson, Pedigree, Lexus, Pepsico, Samsung and Honda. The company has offices all around the world from London through Los Angeles, and Sao Paolo through Singapore.
The Academy Award-winning integration technology used by Mirriad is demonstrated in a short-video on their website. The software is fashioned to track objects and backgrounds in each frame, creating an optical flow of how objects are moving from second to second, essentially mapping the video in three dimensions (Aaron Souppouris). This allows for two types of advertising. The first utilizes 3-D tracking to place objects into an open space in a 3-D scene with a moving camera, calculating the necessary camera position and orientation in every frame. The second employs planar tracking to place imagery such as a logo or signage onto an existing surface. The tracking technology allows this to be done even if the surface is moving (mirriad.com). With these two techniques, Mirriad can place either 3-D models of products into scenes, or inject a poster or sign into the background of a shot.
Television and web-based video surrender relatively easily to the new technology but what about the cinema? Imagine if James Bond could swap his newly acquired Heineken beer back to a high-end luxury beverage. With Mirriad’s help, in Russian cinemas Bond could drink vodka, in Britain he could drink a martini, or in the US he could gulp down bourbon. That’s just one example, the possibilities are almost unlimited. Now a distinction has to be noted here between films shown on television or on the web, and films running in the cinema. As cinemas are ‘live’ distributors to larger groups and territories, they would provide a more significant challenge for brand integration. Presumably though, the issue is not insurmountable, and can be done via regular post-production work in relation to product placement on a region-by-region, or even city-by-city, basis. After all, the original idea of ‘dubbing’ product placement has been around for years. Back in 2004, the Spider-Man 2 film digitally replaced a product placed can of Dr Pepper with a can of Mirinda (owned by PepsiCo and produced in their non-US markets) for international audiences (Charles Goldsmith).
Mirriad says it can guarantee that different audience groups experience personally tailored adverts for as little as a month or as long as a year. However, this development works best for films shown not in cinemas but on television and the web. Meanwhile as long as the DVD market dwindles, adding new content to fresh DVD releases, directorial cuts etc. is a growing Hollywood tactic to prop up sales. This opens up a new window for digital insertion and generates further revenue out of an old product (Abe Sauer). When the product placement contract expires with the original company, for example Pepsi, and the producers would like to squeeze out more money as the film travels through sell-through markets, they can just call Mirriad, strike a deal with Coca Cola instead and change the brand of the product placement on the fly. The audience will not notice the change, not consciously at least – and that is the unique selling point of Mirriad. The Guardian writer Steve Rose raises the question of how would we react to a box of 21st Century Cheerios in a cult film like Citizen Kane (1941). Popkiewicz, CEO of the company answers that this kind of placement is unlikely: “Brands aren’t daft. The last thing they want is to be in the wrong place at the wrong time” (Steve Rose). This statement can serve as a small assurance that, for example, Pulp Fiction’s (1994) iconic but fictional Big Kahuna burger joints won’t suddenly turn into McDonald’s (Aaron Souppouris).
Possible future developments raise the issue of artistic value, originality and authenticity. Mico explains the implicit pact between the content creator and the audience works well as long as value is being delivered on both sides of the system (qtd. in Young). What about commercializing art? Mico claims, music videos and films have always had adverts (think about the shameless panning on the Coca-Cola billboard in Blade Runner (1982)). Ultimately, it is the producers’ choice to decide if they want to change their previous sponsors and get new money out of an old deal with the help of Mirriad. Nonetheless, another safety precaution the smooth running of the software. It allows human participation in the most crucial part: choosing the content. Humans understand context more efficiently; the computer can decide where the best place to integrate advertising is, but humans have better judgment on what should be integrated. Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google, said it best: ’Content is King but context is its crown!’ (Robert Andrews). Computers alone cannot place the ads carefully enough to ensure that peaceful co-existence of art, content and brands.
In any case, we live in the age of reboots, spinoffs, rip-offs, remakes etc., and as a result claims to originality have become more and more blurred. As these changes become commonplace how will we ever know if we’re watching the original? This question opens up a much wider debate which goes beyond the future developments of Mirriad. What is the role of authenticity in a digital culture that allows for mass replication anyway? Mico states that the Mirriad deal is not forced onto the artists or customers. It is consensual, to a point. The ultimate aim is to generate further revenue but inevitably the audience is at the forefront of the creator’s mind, as they would not dare to risk losing them with a too harsh or ‘out of place and style’ advert. The future will confirm if there need to be adequate rules guarding the line of authenticity and originality when inserting adverts or whether this will governed simply by the deterrence of the potential negative impact of a strikingly out of place ad/brand in a popular film.
The film and digital economy is intertwined, and without the financial input of advertisers, made possible by companies like Mirriad, many films, television programs, and digital content would not be made. Producers may ask whether the audience would skip through a 10-30 second advert, which interrupts the narrative flow of their viewing experience, or accept a range of seamlessly integrated products such as Grand Marnier casually appearing in the back of a scene on a previously non-existent billboard.
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Written by Zsofia Szemeredy (2015); Queen Mary, University of London
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