Ontario fans of The Apprentice might have been surprised to see a backlit ad for Casino Rama atop the yellow New York taxi cab that carried away the latest candidate fired on Monday's episode.
The Orillia, Ont., casino doesn't advertise at all in the United States. The ad was digitally inserted into CanWest Global Communications Corp.'s simulcast feed of the U.S. broadcast.
"We would not advertise on an actual New York cab, but I like the idea of how it looks to the average Torontonian viewing The Apprentice and seeing me on a New York cab," said Jeff Craik, director of marketing services for Casino Rama.
Such so-called virtual ads are a small but growing portion of ad revenue for CanWest's Global TV network in an era where viewers are skipping traditional commercials and marketers are looking for innovative ways to reach them.
Because Canada's private broadcasters pick up so much programming from the United States, they have fewer opportunities for product placement. Virtual ads allow them to digitally include products that aren't part of the original scene and are never seen by U.S. viewers.
Revenue from the virtual product placements are shared between the Canadian network and the U.S. producers.
Virtual ads have been used for years during broadcasts of sporting events. For example, Canadian viewers of the Super Bowl might see a different logo on a blimp or a billboard than U.S. viewers. But Global is also working with advertisers to insert them into sitcoms and reality TV shows simulcast from the U.S.
"It's not a massive revenue source but it's a nice additional source of revenue and it's something we want to grow because it can grow," said Gaye McDonald, vice-president of brand partnerships for the marketing ventures division of CanWest MediaWorks.
Casino Rama is paying less than $10,000 an episode for its virtual placement on The Apprentice throughout Ontario, according to Pegi Gross, the media director at Marshall-Fenn, the agency that placed the ad. That compares with $36,000 for a traditional 30-second spot on the same show in Ontario.
It's also much less than Yahoo HotJobs pays to put a real logo on top of the cab used in the show, but not seen by Canadian viewers.
Casino Rama's ad was seen for the first time Monday and will appear on the cab that finishes every episode for the rest of the season.
For years, Global has been inserting virtual products -- including Tylenol, Splenda and Old El Paso -- into the Canadian simulcast of Will & Grace. And in the fall, it did a deal with Cadbury Schweppes Canada Inc. to scatter Caramilk bars throughout The Apprentice: Martha Stewart. In one example, the chocolate bar was seen beside Ms. Stewart as she was seated at her computer; in another, it was digitally inserted into a contestant's purse.
"It must fit well in the environment and be appropriate in the environment," Ms. McDonald said. "To be effective, that's what you have to do. We have utmost respect for our viewers and so what we do -- it's well done, it's well crafted and there's no deceit involved."
CHUM Ltd., which owns CITY-TV and A Channel, says it is eager to get involved with virtual advertising, but hasn't done so yet.
"I think it is a great answer to the product integration stuff that has been going on, especially for us Canadians who buy American programs," said Maria Hale, vice-president of content business development for CHUM Television and Radio. "If the 30-second spot is in jeopardy . . . this gives us an answer for how to integrate Canadian sponsors into programs that may or many not have products in them."
CTV Inc. says it doesn't do virtual ads and turned down an interview request. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission says it is monitoring the growth of product placements and virtual ads, which are not currently counted in the 12 minutes of commercials that broadcasters are allowed to run each hour.