Interactive: Can You Spot the Newest Advertising Tricks?

Now that you can easily skip through traditional television commercials, advertisers are finding creative new ways to get their brands on your radar.

A recent survey* found that 76 percent of people use their digital video recorder ("DVR") and/or ad blocking software to avoid commercials on television and online. A total of 68 percent of those surveyed admit to remembering fewer than five advertisements that they've seen in the past week.

With billions of ad dollars at stake, marketers are turning to less obvious strategies to get consumers to buy.

One technique that's proven effective is "product placement," where a company pays to have its product appear in the background of a TV show. Nielsen identified 4,538 instances of product placement during the 2015-2016 television season.

But thanks to new technology, products no longer have to be physically on the set during filming to appear in a scene - they can be digitally added into shows and movies long after shooting has wrapped.

Mirriad, a company that's considered a leader in the field of "virtual product placement," has perfected its digital capabilities to the point where one brand of cellphone or soda or car can be transformed into another, depending on the market or country in which the tv show or movie appears. The product can also be changed each time the same TV show airs, so a billboard that advertised one product in a premiere episode can be updated to plug a different product in a repeat episode.


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Mirriad CEO Mark Popkiewicz says his team has also developed technology that can quickly spot opportunities for specific brands.

"We have polished the technology and process so that we always identify relevant inventory for any brand or category and find the right fit between show genre, audience and context," said Popkiewicz.

But while companies love seeing their brand on screen, many viewers don't. Some regularly log onto the blog to complain that obvious product placement disrupts their enjoyment of a show.

"As advertisers you have to find new ways to engage those people, and new ways to put your message in front of them," advertising executive Greg James told the I-Team.

James, Chief Strategy and Development Officer at Havas Media, says one effective solution is "product integration."

"In product integration, you really see brands working with show producers to find clever ways to integrate [products] not just into visual you see, but into the story itself," he said. 

One recent example can be found in a 2016 episode of the ABC sitcom "Modern Family." In it, character character Phil Dunphy explains that he is not simply a real estate agent, but a licensed "Realtor," and boasts of his home-selling expertise.

The scripted moment is the result of a paid product integration deal struck with the National Association of Realtors.

"We want the public to know there's a huge difference between a realtor and a non-realtor," said N.A.R. President Bill Brown. To be considered a "Realtor," a real estate agent must be licensed and belong to N.A.R. According to the "" website, realtors also "must adhere to a code of ethics."

In 2015, the producers of Fox Television's "Empire" signed a product integration deal with Pepsi, agreeing to weave the brand into a three-episode storyline involving a major character.

Dr. Paul Simon, Chief Science Officer at the Los Angeles Department of Public Health, tells the I-Team he's alarmed by a scripted integration involving soda.

"By linking food products with very attractive characters, with heroes," Simon says, "the food products become much more desirable."

The ad you're watching was not there just a moment ago. Watch how advertisers are sneaking products into scenes using movie magic technology.

Studies have linked excess sugar consumption to obesity, diabetes and fatty liver disease. Simon worries young people, in particular, are more prone to consume sugary products if they see them portrayed positively on their favorite shows.

"It's really disturbing," Simon said. "It really, truly is manipulative."

Contacted by the I-Team, a Fox-TV spokesperson declined to comment.

The I-Team found instances of product integration on every major television network. That includes NBC, which airs "Celebrity Apprentice," a competition show in which contestants are regularly challenged to devise ways to market a particular product or brand. An NBC spokesperson also declined to comment.

Kristen Strader of the Washington D.C. consumer watchdog group Public Citizen says the Federal Trade Commission should be monitoring instances of product integration to guarantee that viewers can easily identify an advertisement when they see one.

"Truth in advertising law says that viewers, and just consumers in general in any platform, have the right to know that they're being advertised to," Strader said.

Since 2015, the FTC has brought four cases against companies for violating disclosure rules on social media platforms like YouTube and Instagram, but the I-Team could find no record of any federal disciplinary action ever taken in response to a TV product integration.

Asked for comment, an FTC spokesman said:  "As a matter of policy, we don't comment on whether a particular practice violates the FTC Act unless we've taken formal action against the company and that there's been no announcement of additional initiatives in this area."

Strader says she'd like to see producers insert a banner that says "paid advertisement" on the television screen anytime a product integration airs.

*ORC International 2016 survey of 1,015 adults.

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