Traditional TV product placement takes months or even years to plan and execute. But with advancements in digital effects, almost anything is on the table—and Amazon is taking that sentiment literally.

During its NewFronts presentation in May, Amazon showcased an example of M&M’s digitally appearing on a table in an episode of Prime Video’s series Bosch. Despite the candy not being on set during filming, Amazon’s Virtual Product Placement (VPP) had the brand front and center in the scene. “The goal is to give a relevant brand or product exposure organically within the viewing experience,” an Amazon spokesperson told Adweek.

But Amazon isn’t the only streaming service looking to virtually shake up product placement and help marketers find new ways to reach audiences outside of traditional ads. NBCUniversal’s Peacock also revealed its version of digital product placement at NewFronts with its In-Scene Ad format, showcasing signage and billboards within shows such as Bel-Air that could change based on who’s watching and when.

Amazon Prime Video

“We can use signage for Jordan Peele’s [new movie] Nope in a piece of content right now. But if you’re watching the same episode a few weeks later, you may see a promotion for [the movie] Halloween Ends, which comes out in October,” said Laura Molen, NBCUniversal president of advertising sales and partnerships. “It’s seamless integration, and it can be contextual and targeted to a specific viewer.”

Virtual becomes reality

The tech first garnered buzz in the 2000s when companies dropped digitally inserted products into syndicated shows. But today, new research and targeting enable outlets to customize integrations down to individual viewers. More productions are filming with the intent of digitally inserting products later, and AI actively scans shows to identify potential spaces for future insertions.

Product integration company BEN has been placing brands digitally for around two decades. Erin Schmidt, chief product placement officer, said its tech could even predict future success.

“We built this algorithm that’s taking all of the past data and makes future predictions,” Schmidt said. “So we take any script synopsis, cast, who’s behind the camera and who’s in front of the camera, and it has an output of impressions.”

TripleLift, another company in the space, built its tech to work programmatically, allowing advertisers to do insertions with a demand-side platform (DSP).

“When we set up placements in particular shows, they’re represented as deals within the DSP,” Michael Shields, TripleLift gm of advanced advertising, told Adweek. “And then the brands can bring their data to activate on the DSP or [data management platform] of their choice.”

Shields said product integrations look as if they were on set all along, and all the companies Adweek spoke to said brands working alongside production don’t have to worry about careless integrations. For instance, wine bottles wouldn’t appear in a scene where a character is struggling with substance abuse. “Never in a million years will that happen,” Schmidt said.

Likewise, Josh Feldman, global chief marketing officer, NBCUniversal advertising sales and partnerships, said the company works with creators on organic integrations.

“We don’t want to distract,” Feldman said. “We want [integrations] to be additive to what we’re doing.”

Multimillion-dollar questions

Buyers, however, aren’t completely sold on digital product placement. 

“The technology itself, I’ve been incredibly impressed by,” Publicis Media’s chief content and innovation officer Eric Levin said. “My questions are around the general impact that we feel this will have. Do we collectively agree that a passive digital placement builds a means to drive engagement?”

Meanwhile, two industry insiders that Adweek spoke to questioned the effectiveness of products passively inserted into scenes. According to one buyer, the challenge will be “figuring out how to monetize it, how you’re going to charge for it and what the scale is.”

Another potential hurdle: Though Amazon and Peacock can have more control over their own IPs, insertions in third-party programming may also require negotiations with distributors and filmmaking guilds.

However, with dwindling inventory, ad-averse audiences and increased production costs due to the pandemic, Schmidt said demand for digital product placement is on the rise. And Shields noted that every major direct-to-consumer service has come to TripleLift to learn about its platform.

It’s still early days for Amazon’s VPP, and Peacock’s In-Scene Ads are only prototypes for now, with NBCUniversal’s streaming council members getting the first opportunity to partner on the ad format. But all indications are that the tech will continue to become more prevalent and increasingly sophisticated in the months and years to come.

“With any upfront or NewFront, it’s always the shiny object,” Levin said. “It’s what you do with it after that matters.”

This work was originally published on Adweek.