Add a Coke Can to Your Viral Video? The Next Gen of Product Placement Is Here

Sam Blake

Sam primarily covers entertainment and media for dot.LA. Previously he was Marjorie Deane Fellow at The Economist, where he wrote for the business and finance sections of the print edition. He has also worked at the XPRIZE Foundation, U.S. Government Accountability Office, KCRW, and MLB Advanced Media (now Disney Streaming Services). He holds an MBA from UCLA Anderson, an MPP from UCLA Luskin and a BA in History from University of Michigan. Email him at samblake@dot.LA and find him on Twitter @hisamblake


If you watched this year's NCAA basketball tournament, you may have unknowingly witnessed an early milestone from a company aiming to upend video advertising.

Ryff, a stealthy L.A.-based startup founded in 2018, helped Coca-Cola insert images of Coke bottles and banners into classic footage from past tournaments, like UCLA's 2006 finals run and North Carolina State's improbable championship in 1983.

Ryff's ambitions are much grander than clever, nostalgic ads: chief executive and co-founder Roy Taylor wants to introduce on-demand digitized product placement across the entire entertainment industry.

Traditional product placement often requires complex upfront negotiations between brands and content producers, or using post-production techniques that can be costly and clunky. Ryff uses technology common in video games, where on-screen items can be swapped in and out at the push of a button, to quickly insert branded images into completed scenes. This approach distinguishes the L.A.-based startup, but could raise questions from creators who never set out to be brand ambassadors and viewers who will be unwittingly exposed to ads.

Taylor himself is reluctant to seek out too much publicity for fear of a backlash.

"We're in a slightly unusual position because we want all the publicity we can get, but only B2B," he said, meaning he wants brands and content-owners to hear about Ryff, but not necessarily viewers.

"We believe the general public, if they have a preference, veer towards being less comfortable with digital anything right now," Taylor said. He is adamant, however, that Ryff does not create "deep fakes."

"We do not change an original truth; I think that's wrong," he said. "I would never allow our technology to be used in a way which is nefarious."

In addition to its Coke campaign, Ryff has done a test campaign with Diageo, for which it inserted Baileys bottles into three Lifetime movies, as well as a handful of other brands and firms including Intel, Perfectamundo tequila and Dutch production company Endemol Shine. The startup has raised $8.6 million.

As linear TV viewership has declined, advertising dollars on the medium have stagnated. They have "proven relatively resilient, despite cord cutting," said media analyst Tony Lenoir of Kagan, because advertisers like being able to reach the customers that have stuck with cable, who tend to be relatively wealthy.

But TV ads have been in steady decline as a share of overall advertising spend. From 2015 to 2020 the share of TV ad-spend in the U.S. fell from 42% to 33%, with a further decline to 20% expected by 2025, according to MoffettNathanson, an independent research company focused on media and communications. Online advertising, which includes streaming, has picked up the slack, growing from a 27% share in 2015 to 52% in 2020, with an expected rise to 73% by 2025. Relatedly, eMarketer predicts that by 2024, there will be more households without a traditional pay-TV service than with it.

Taylor's investors think he and his 30-person team, split between L.A. and Cambridge in his native U.K., are well positioned to ride these trends.

"I think streaming platforms, because there's so many of them now, will need to identify new ways of generating revenue outside of growing the subscriber base," said Marlon Nichols, whose MaC Ventures participated in Ryff's $5 million fundraise in 2019, its most recent.

Ryff's biggest competitor is London-based Mirriad, which Taylor says uses technology that is less scalable. That could change, however.

"There is no such thing today as a product which cannot be replicated," he said.

Like any multi-sided platform — think Uber, Airbnb, etc. — Ryff will need to onboard users on both the supply and demand sides of the ad market. In other words, to achieve its ambitions of ushering in a new paradigm of advertising, Taylor needs to lure in more brands on the one side, and streaming platforms, studios and UGC video services on the other.

Ryff LifetimeRyff has done a test campaign with Diageo, for which it inserted Baileys bottles into three Lifetime movies.

How Ryff Works

To demonstrate his technology, Taylor pulls up a scene from a film he cannot disclose, of two men sitting on stools outside a restaurant, at a small table holding two empty glasses.

Using a combination of computer visioning and artificial intelligence, Ryff's "Placer" technology has scanned the entire film to identify opportunities like this for product placement. The tool, Taylor said, is trained to recommend product types that fit scenes contextually, culturally and creatively.

In the restaurant scene, that means the technology should know not only that a beverage bottle could fit, but also that it must be a brand that could be found in whichever country the scene is taking place. The product also must fit with the story's narrative; if both characters are teetotalers, the technology could suggest a soda brand, but not a beer.

"I took the notion that you could treat a frame of film or TV as a backdrop, like in a traditional theater," Taylor said. "You could take a 3D model and render it — that is, apply light and shade to it — and make it look as though it appeared in the backdrop; you could get them to match."

Ryff's automated suggestions are uploaded into a searchable database that brands can screen for myriad factors, including the time of day the scene takes place, specific actors in it and whether it contains certain activities like sports.

Taylor drew on his background at NVIDIA to create Ryff. The Silicon Valley company makes chips and graphic processing units. In the 1990s, he helped launch its European offices.

Will Advertisers and Content-Creators Riff on Ryff?

Analysts at PQ Media have pegged the brand-placement market at $20 billion worldwide, and forecast it to climb 9.8% per year through 2024, with the fastest growth occurring on digital platforms.

"It's a concept that was not possible in years past, just because the technology was not there to do this kind of scene analysis and to place in everyday objects in a realistic way," said Paul Erickson of market research firm Parks Associates.

Consumers today are less tolerant of ads than they once were, he points out. "People's tastes have changed."

As cable continues its decline and streaming picks up the slack, Taylor thinks that aversion will only grow.

"I don't believe in AVOD," he said, referring to streaming's ad-based monetization model.

But plenty of streaming companies are betting that traditional, interruptive advertising still has a place. HBO Max has announced plans to launch a lower-priced, ad-based tier later this year. ViacomCBS and NBCUniversal have both embraced multi-pronged streaming strategies that include monetization models ranging from free and ad-based to premium subscription-based.

As to whether pure-play subscription-based services might entertain Ryff's "placement-based" revenue opportunity, media analyst Dan Rayburn is skeptical.

"Based on the projections they've given Wall Street, these services think they can be profitable without ads," he said, adding that companies like Netflix have shunned advertising revenues, presumably based on their analysis that the benefits would be outweighed by the cost of turning off customers.

RyffRyff has done a test campaign with Diageo, for which it inserted Baileys bottles into three Lifetime movies

Rayburn also said that based on his research, streaming companies may bridle at serving viewers product placements that could feel inauthentic and thus devalue their content.

"Disney's not saying, 'Hey, we'll stick a Pepsi behind Disney content'," he said. "That's not a business model they want or a trend they want to start."

Taylor said content rights holders may yet be won over because they have the final say as to what goes in their scenes.

"They always have control–always," he said.

Even if customers and content creators are okay with what Ryff provides, it will still need to bring on more brands to grow. For its business model, the company charges brands a fee or takes a percentage of their payments to the content owners. Ryff would not disclose its revenue figures.

"Advertisers don't throw a lot of money around ideas where they don't know how to measure the ROI," said Rayburn, noting this may make it challenging for Ryff to bring on brands.

A report commissioned by Ryff about its Baileys campaign, done by third-party research firm Radicle, indicated that, from start to finish, the placement took three weeks, and that Diageo was pleased with the results.

Taylor thinks brands will warm to Ryff once they better understand its customer-targeting capabilities, saying he can help to ensure "we no longer promote meat products to vegetarians."

Ryff helped Coca-Cola insert images of Coke bottles and banners into classic footage from past NCAA tournaments.

Ryff's Vision of the Future

In addition to tapping streamers and studios to feed its content database, Taylor is also intrigued by Ryff's opportunities in the vast and growing world of user-generated content that ends up on platforms like YouTube and TikTok. He points to renowned investor Marc Andreessen's thesis of a "third wave" of the internet, monetized by direct-to-creator spend rather than through third-party ads. The success of platforms like Cameo, Substack and Only Fans are early signs of this evolution.

"This is where I think this is going," Taylor said. "Real-time ingestion, real-time placement and real-time auctions."

Even as the means by which viewers access content evolves, and the monetization models change apace, Taylor is sure at least one thing will endure.

"Ultimately, great content needs budgets," he said, hopeful that such a need can be fulfilled by Ryff, even if it is, like much of advertising, a necessary evil.

Subscribe to our newsletter to catch every headline.

How the 'Thrift Haul' Trend Boosted the Secondhand Ecommerce

Lon Harris
Lon Harris is a contributor to dot.LA. His work has also appeared on ScreenJunkies, RottenTomatoes and Inside Streaming.
How the 'Thrift Haul' Trend Boosted the Secondhand Ecommerce
Evan Xie

If you can believe it, it’s been more than a decade since rapper Macklemore extolled the virtues of thrift shopping in a viral music video. But while scouring the ranks of vintage clothing stores looking for the ultimate come-up may have waned in popularity since 2012, the online version of this activity is apparently thriving.

According to a new trend story from CNBC, interest in “reselling” platforms like Etsy-owned Depop and Poshmark has exploded in the years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown. In an article that spends a frankly surprising amount of time focused on sellers receiving death threats before concluding that they’re “not the norm,” the network cites the usual belt-tightening ecommerce suspects – housebound individuals doing more of their shopping online coupled with inflation woes and recession fears – as the causes behind the uptick.

As for data, there’s a survey from Depop themselves, finding that 53% of respondents in the UK are more inclined to shop secondhand as living costs continue to rise. Additional research from Advance Market Analytics confirms the trend, citing not just increased demand for cheap clothes but the pressing need for a sustainable alternative to recycling clothing materials at its core.

The major popularity of “thrift haul” videos across social media platforms like YouTube and TikTok has also boosted the visibility of vintage clothes shopping and hunting for buried treasures. Teenage TikToker Jacklyn Wells scores millions of views on her thrift haul videos, only to get routinely mass-accused of greed for ratching up the Depop resell prices for her coolest finds and discoveries. Nonetheless, viral clips like Wells’ have helped to embed secondhand shopping apps more generally within online fashion culture. Fashion and beauty magazine Hunger now features a regular list of the hottest items on the re-sale market, with a focus on how to use them to recreate hot runway looks.

As with a lot of consumer and technology trends, the sudden surge of interest in second-hand clothing retailers was only partly organic. According to The Drum, ecommerce apps Vinted, eBay, and Depop have collectively spent around $120 million on advertising throughout the last few years, promoting the recent vintage shopping boom and helping to normalize second-hand shopping. This includes conventional advertising, of course, but also deals with online influencers to post content like “thrift haul” videos, along with shoutouts for where to track down the best finds.

Reselling platforms have naturally responded to the increase in visibility with new features (as well as a predictable hike in transaction fees). Poshmark recently introduced livestreamed “Posh Shows” during which sellers can host auctions or provide deeper insight into their inventory. Depop, meanwhile, has introduced a “Make Offer” option to fully integrate the bartering and negotiation process into the app, rather than forcing buyers and sellers to text or Direct Message one another elsewhere. (The platform formerly had a comments section on product pages, but shut this option down after finding that it led to arguments, and wasn’t particularly helpful in making purchase decisions.)

Now that it’s clear there’s money to be made in online thrift stores, larger and more established brands and retailers are also pushing their way into the space. H&M and Target have both partnered with online thrift store ThredUp on featured collections of previously-worn clothing. A new “curated” resale collection from Tommy Hilfiger – featuring minorly damaged items that were returned to its retail stores – was developed and promoted through a partnership with Depop, which has also teamed with Kellogg’s on a line of Pop-Tarts-inspired wear. J.Crew is even bringing back its classic ‘80s Rollneck Sweater in a nod to the renewed interest in all things vintage.

Still, with any surge of popularity and visibility, there must also come an accompanying backlash. In a sharp editorial this week for Arizona University’s Daily Wildcat, thrift shopping enthusiast Luke Lawson makes the case that sites like Depop are “gentrifying fashion,” stripping communities of local thrift stores that provide a valuable public service, particularly for members of low-income communities. As well, UK tabloids are routinely filled with secondhand shopping horror stories these days, another evidence point as to their increased visibility among British consumers specifically, not to mention the general dangers of buying personal items from strangers you met over the internet. - Lon Harris

Here’s What Happened in LA’s Entertainment Tech World This Week 🍿

How Token and Tixr plan to take on Ticketmaster in L.A.

What is ‘embodied audio?’ And can it help pro sports teams fill their stadiums?

Social Media 📱 

Five takeaways from TikTok’s congressional hearing.

How the TikTok ban could impact LA employees.

With a TikTok ban on the horizon, Zigazoo is working to attract teens.

Clean Tech ♻️

Mullen Automotive pays millions to settle lawsuit with Qiantu.

Why are lithium prices falling?

Relativity Space launches world’s first 3D-printed rocket, but falls short of orbit.

Generative AI apps still have a long way to go before they start swaying elections.

Listen Up 🎧

Behind Her Empire: ComplYant Founder and CEO Shiloh Johnson on helping small businesses.

LA Venture: B Capital’s Howard Morgan on what to look for in potential founders.

Office Hours: VC legend Bill Gurley on startups, venture capital and scaling.

Also 💬

Without neuromarketing, tech firms’ ads get lost in the noise.

How to startup: mission acquisition.

Virgin Orbit’s swift descent.

Adobe announces new generative AI app that doesn’t steal artists’ work.

Get caught up on this week's career moves in L.A.'s tech world with our weekly roundup.

And check out our weekly 'Raises' roundup of L.A. startups that raised capital this week.

How to Startup: Mission Acquisition

Spencer Rascoff

Spencer Rascoff serves as executive chairman of dot.LA. He is an entrepreneur and company leader who co-founded Zillow, Hotwire, dot.LA, Pacaso and Supernova, and who served as Zillow's CEO for a decade. During Spencer's time as CEO, Zillow won dozens of "best places to work" awards as it grew to over 4,500 employees, $3 billion in revenue, and $10 billion in market capitalization. Prior to Zillow, Spencer co-founded and was VP Corporate Development of Hotwire, which was sold to Expedia for $685 million in 2003. Through his startup studio and venture capital firm, 75 & Sunny, Spencer is an active angel investor in over 100 companies and is incubating several more.

How to Startup: Mission Acquisition

Numbers don’t lie, but often they don’t tell the whole story. If you look at the facts and figures alone, launching a startup seems like a daunting enterprise. It seems like a miracle anyone makes it out the other side.

  • 90% of startups around the world fail.
  • On average, it takes startups 2-3 years to turn a profit. (Venture funded startups take far longer.)
  • Post-seed round, fewer than 10% of startups go on to successfully raise a Series A investment.
  • Less than 1% of startups go public.
  • A startup only has a .00006% chance of becoming a unicorn.


Read moreShow less

From The Vault: VC Legend Bill Gurley On Startups, Venture Capital and Scaling

Spencer Rascoff

Spencer Rascoff serves as executive chairman of dot.LA. He is an entrepreneur and company leader who co-founded Zillow, Hotwire, dot.LA, Pacaso and Supernova, and who served as Zillow's CEO for a decade. During Spencer's time as CEO, Zillow won dozens of "best places to work" awards as it grew to over 4,500 employees, $3 billion in revenue, and $10 billion in market capitalization. Prior to Zillow, Spencer co-founded and was VP Corporate Development of Hotwire, which was sold to Expedia for $685 million in 2003. Through his startup studio and venture capital firm, 75 & Sunny, Spencer is an active angel investor in over 100 companies and is incubating several more.

Bill Gurley in a blue suit
Bill Gurley

This interview was originally published on December of 2020, and was recorded at the inaugural dot.LA Summit held October 27th & 28th.

One of my longtime favorite episodes of Office Hours was a few years ago when famed venture capitalist Bill Gurley and I talked about marketplace-based companies, how work-from-home will continue to accelerate business opportunities and his thoughts on big tech and antitrust.

Read moreShow less