Ninety seconds into the video for Darius Rucker's 2012 hit "True Believers," we see the former Hootie and the Blowfish frontman standing in front of a billboard for Grand Marnier liqueur. It's a pretty benign-looking shot, until you realize that the billboard never actually existed – it was added digitally earlier this year, roughly two years after the video first aired.
Welcome to the world of retroactive product placement. The practice of digitally inserting new ads into old content has existed in TV for a few years. But it's new to music videos, thanks to a deal that Universal Music Group entered into with media-tech company Mirriad and French advertising firm Havas.
As first reported in Financial Times, the deal will integrate brands in music videos in ways unheard of even five years ago. Unlike a traditional product placement deal — in which a brand would work with the record label and artist and insert their product into the video during its production — retroactive product placement (a.k.a. native in-video advertising) functions more like traditional advertising. The ads inserted into each video have a finite lifespan and can be removed or replaced instantly. Companies may also localize ads, meaning a person in New York may see a Pepsi billboard at the same time someone in London sees an ad for McDonald's.
"It works in exactly the same way as you would plan a media campaign for a brand around music videos," Ted Mico, Mirriad's chief operating officer, tells Rolling Stone. "But instead of running pre-roll, now you'd buy spots inside the video." Retroactive placement, Mico says, is necessary because it's getting difficult to make viewers notice ads. "We're in the business of helping creatives make money out of the things they've already made," says Mico. "Technology is allowing people to skip ads in all formats."
"We know that millenials have different behaviors: 35 percent of them don't watch broadcast TV anymore and 90 percent of those who watch replay TV are skipping ads," adds Dominique Delport, global managing director for Havas. "We do think that quality video inventory is still an issue and only a small part of all of YouTube is advertiser-friendly. Creating engagement through brand presence within the content itself is incredibly relevant."
Rucker, Far East Movement and Avicii are among the first musicians to implement the new technology, though more than two dozen Universal artists across all genres have expressed interest in participating. "If advertising starts to dry up, so does the content," says Mico. "We're tough to miss because we're in the content."
Mirriad, whose executives come from the music industry (Mico worked with Jimmy Iovine on an early iteration of Beats Music), began in 2008 and spent three years developing the technology to enable the practice. Employing a team of computer vision scientists, the company uses new technology to scan large troves of video to find spaces where advertising could fit. Humans are then brought in to check context to ensure, say, an ad for Jack Daniel's doesn't appear in a new Raffi video.
In May, the company entered into an agreement with Vevo to use the technology in videos for the first time, displaying a Levi's ad in the background of Aloe Blacc's "The Man" from 2013's Lift Your Spirit. "We applaud Vevo and Mirriad for creating an innovative approach to connecting brands with targeted audiences via premium content," Stacy Doren, Head of Levi’s Marketing for the Americas, said in a statement at the time.
Representatives for Rucker, Far East Movement and Aloe Blacc all declined to comment.
The ad lasted 30 days and laid the groundwork for Mirriad's bigger deal with Universal and Havas. Last year, Havas launched SiliWood, a Los Angeles-based research center that aims to, as the company noted in a press release, "support the growing interest of brands and agencies in potential industry developments generated by the crossover between the media industry and Hollywood." It was here where the company first linked up with Mirriad, who had already been in negotiations with Universal. "It was a marriage a trois," says Delport.
The speed at which ads can be inserted, replaced and deleted is almost instantaneous. One day after Rolling Stone contacted Avicii to request comment for the insertion of a Grand Marnier ad in his video for "Lay Me Down," the ad disappeared. While a spokesperson for the musician told Rolling Stone that the ad was only "a test," it exemplifies the ease in which videos can be altered.
Some artists see this new avenue as a way to allow greater creativity. "Technology like this could in fact allow for bigger [video] budgets so that creativity doesn't have to take a dive for financial restraints," says Ash Pournouri, Avicii's manager. "We have a small but principal stake in [Mirriad], which feels important to us."
Not everyone loves the idea, though. "I come close to throwing up," says David T. Viecelli, president of booking agency the Billions and agent for Arcade Fire and St. Vincent. "I object to it in the same way that I object to commercial product placement in any type of art. I do not hold with the beliefs that corporations are our saviors and this growing perception that nothing good can happen without the largesse of somebody who's been ripping us off for decades.
"It's becoming much more challenging to develop sustainable revenue for an artist," adds Viecelli. "But selling out is selling out. Avicii's manager says that, but how far is it between that and saying, 'It's unfortunate that Avicii has to blow guys in the bus station for chump change, but it's the only way that we can get the light show we want on the next tour.' That's a very dangerous, slippery slope."
While all parties agree that the artist must approve any in-video advertising before it happens — "All brands know that technology won't replace relevancy of the association," says Delport. "Never forget that content is king." — it's easy to see how some would view this as a continued blurring between content and commerce; another example of the "music business" not being able to separate the "music" from the "business."
"Is there anything wrong with spray painting a Coke billboard behind the Mona Lisa?," says Viecelli. "Once you start saying, 'We will be revisionists about art at the behest of corporations for commercial placement,' I don't see a clear line where it stops."
"We have no intention whatsoever of graffitting over the Mona Lisa," says Mico. "What we are offering is a less painful, more efficient way of doing the kind of brand integrations that are already being done. If an artist feels like the brand is inappropriate, they can just say, 'No.' Nobody is forcing this on anybody."
One source involved in the deal dismisses this perception of dilution between creativity and business. "Sure, but then you shouldn't go to a concert and look at sponsorships on stage," he says. "It's in nobody's interest if you get walloped over the head with some really hokey ad. But if it fits seamlessly, I'd rather experience that than a really annoying pre-roll."
Universal is the first label to use the new technology, but almost certainly not the last. Mico says Mirriad is in talks with "all the obvious partners" in the hopes of expanding the practice, while Delport says Havas will sign up more brands with Universal while also exploring ways to insert brand placement in other forms of video content. "The only limitation is based on the human work of matching artist, brand and campaign," says one source. "The opportunities are limitless."