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Marketing: Making Brands Magically Appear

2 minute read
Daniel Eisenberg

For a guy who is helping to revolutionize the face of television advertising, Brown Williams isn’t much of a channel surfer. Maybe it’s because he spent 23 years tinkering with TVs as a leading scientist at RCA Labs. But Williams, 60, has watched enough TV to see its future. More channels are competing for viewers’ short attention spans, and the 30-second spot is losing its grip–so advertisers need a new way to get their messages across.

That’s why Princeton Video Image, the company Williams co-founded a decade ago, is suddenly exploding on the Madison Avenue scene. After plowing through $50 million, PVI has fine-tuned a patented computer system that digitally inserts virtual billboards and ads into sporting events and other broadcasts. “We make [advertisers] immune to what people do during the breaks,” says Williams, a native Californian with a Ph.D. in physics.

On ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball broadcasts, viewers see a rotating array of corporate pitches on the backstop behind home plate that are invisible to fans in the stands. In Mexico logos for Pepsi and Tecate magically appear on the field during soccer games. Virtual ads, though, are just the beginning of a world in which advertising will be far more pervasive. If Williams gets his way, PVI will soon be digitally inserting products, not just brand names, into syndicated and prime-time programming. PVI is already negotiating with TNT (owned by TIME’s parent, AOL Time Warner) and Studios USA to do virtual product placements on reruns of Law and Order this fall. A Coke machine could appear in the precinct background, or a Saltines box could sit on the D.A.’s desk.

Williams believes that PVI’s high-tech hocus-pocus, already the target of some media watchdogs, could easily triple the ad dollars each program generates. With iPoint, the system Williams has been developing, digital set-top boxes could tailor virtual ads to individual viewers, based on their demographics and buying habits. Pizza Hut could go after Domino’s customers, enticing them to click on an image to order a pie. “We can literally target individual TV sets,” says Williams. He just has to hope that most people, unlike him, are still busy watching them.

–By Daniel Eisenberg

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