Virtually Real Ads

We shouldn't be surprised when the world of commerce embraces a new technology with little thought for all its implications. Competition drives innovation: If it sells, it's swell.

But sometimes consumers ought to step in and demand a higher standard. A story in last Thursday's Wall Street Journal is a case in point.

"Virtual" ads are beginning to pop up on TV screens during the live broadcast of sports events, ads that look as if they are part of the "real" action taking place. Thus viewers of the Philadelphia Phillies see an ad for Coca-Cola (note the irony: Coke's slogan once was "The Real Thing") on the wall behind the batter's box. But fans at the ballpark see a blank wall. The ad exists only as bits of data in a computer, added in the control room.

Fans watching Brickyard 400 saw product logos mowed into the grass at the fourth turn. But no John Deere tractor did it; the only thing rolling over that turf was a computer mouse. And yet to come: "virtual" ads between the goalposts at football games and on the mat at wrestling and boxing matches. After that, who knows?

Moviegoers have long known seeing isn't believing, whether it's the faked "virtual" war in "Wag the Dog" or the "virtual" life being led by the title character in "The Truman Show."

But that's art. Sports are supposed to be "real events." What's next? Enhancing the action itself so that every pitch or lap is guaranteed to be filled with ersatz excitement?

Broadcasters have run disclaimers telling viewers about the "virtual" ads. But they've stopped because viewers don't seem to notice or complain about this loss of virtue.

It's time for sports consumers to speak up. And for broadcasters and advertisers to get honest about virtual ads. Or, better yet, get real instead.

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