It Quacks Like an Ad, But It's Not an Ad

Virtual ads. It sounds funny, doesn't it? Unnatural. Something to make you say, "What was that again?"

Virtual ads. Like Oakland, there is no there there. But they are there. Right on your TV screen. But only there. Even if they seem to be on the backstop at a ball park or on the infield grass at Indianapolis or even floating in the skies in the shape of a blimp, they are only "real" on your TV.

Virtual signage (virtual ads "real" name) has been around since 1995, but it's becoming ever more noticeable. Basically, it allows sponsors to advertise products during a sporting event in places where ads would never be allowed because they would distract the players. (Forget the fans at home - but more on that later.)

Virtual ads were the subject of a recent Wall Street Journal article. In one example, a machine named L-Vis scans a wall or surface before a game. Another large computer then creates a digital canvas, and later, when the action is at its peak, the machine can toss in an ESPN logo or promotion in less than 2/10ths of a second. When the camera zooms in or an object passes in front of the virtual ad, the computer compensates, and the illusion is complete. (Fans at the event don't see any of this.)

I love technology. But several things bother me about virtual ads. They're not real, but advertisers want us to believe they are. Take the oft-mentioned Internet dancing baby, a virtual creation drawn on a digital canvas that has achieved stardom few babies could hope for. (If, indeed, babies do hope for stardom.) The trick here is that we all know it's a trick. When the baby dances around the living room with Ally McBeal on the "Ally McBeal" show we know the baby isn't really there.

Virtual ads are so seamless, that many of us might actually believe that some poor fellow had to cut those motor oil logos into the grass at the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis recently.

It also bothers me as a sports fan. A few nights before finding the Wall Street Journal article, I was watching a ball game on TV. The back stop was blanketed with Coke signs. The next inning it was Diet Coke. The signs were so numerous and large, I wondered how the pitcher could not be distracted by them. Now I know better. It also bothers me that at the key moment in a sporting contest, I'll often see a virtual ad pop into the middle of the action. It's only more proof that sports is no longer about sports. It's about product placement.

Who knows where it will lead? Apparently, in a few years virtual-ad technology could be used to put extra fans in the stands of a team with poor attendance or at a far-from-sold-out boxing match. The people creating and using virtual ads, however, swear it would never be used for such purposes.

Sure. Just like we thought the Beatles' "Revolution" would never be used to sell running shoes or the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up" wouldn't be used to sell computers. Virtual ads: Proof that not all cool technology is a good thing.

* Tom Regan is the associate editor of the Christian Science Monitor's electronic edition. You can e-mail him at:

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