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Shorter commercials sweeter for advertisers

TV commercials are shrinking along with attention spans and advertising budgets. The 15-second ad is increasingly common, gradually supplanting the 30-second spot just as it knocked off the full-minute pitch decades ago.

Less is more for the Old Spice man

TV commercials are shrinking along with attention spans and advertising budgets. The 15-second ad is increasingly common, gradually supplanting the 30-second spot just as it knocked off the full-minute pitch decades ago.

This video frame is part of a 15-second Old Spice television commercial emblematic of the shorter segments becoming more and more poplar with advertisers as viewers' attention spans and ad budgets shrink. ((Procter & Gamble, Wieden+Kennedy/Associated Press) )
For viewers, it means more commercials in a more rapid-fire format. For advertisers, shorter commercials are a way to save some money, and research shows they retain more eyeballs than the longer format.

"It used to be that the most valuable thing on the planet was time, and now, the most valuable thing on the planet is attention," says John Greening, associate professor at Northwestern University's journalism school and a former executive vice-president at ad agency DDB Chicago.

So, instead of seeing a lengthier plot line, viewers are treated to the sight of, say, the popular "Old Spice man" riding backward on a horse through various scenes for just 15 seconds.

Or the "most interesting man in the world," the suave, rugged, Spanish-accented character pitching Dos Equis beer, appearing just long enough to turn his head and weigh in on the topic of rollerblading. (Verdict? A deadpan "No.")

Viewer attention spans shortened

The number of 15-second television commercials has jumped more than 70 per cent in five years to nearly 5.5 million last year, according to Nielsen. They made up 34 per cent of all national ads on the air last year, up from 29 per cent in 2005.

Commercial-skipping digital video recorders and distractions such as laptops and phones have shortened viewers' attention spans, says Deborah Mitchell, executive director of the Center for Brand and Product Management at the University of Wisconsin.

Viewers are also watching TV streamed on sites like Hulu, where advertisers have less of a presence.

So, companies figure why spend money on anything longer. And if viewers are going to skip ads anyway, at least there is a better chance of them being seen if they are short.

Fifteen-second ads cost about the same per second as longer ads. A 15-second ad on network TV cost about $20,000 on average last year, according to Nielsen.

"It becomes a very seductive thing to get your message out there at half the cost," says Mike Sheldon, CEO of advertising agency Deutsch LA, a unit of Interpublic Group.

Research shows five per cent of viewers will grow bored with a 15-second ad before it ends. ((iStock))
On average, about five per cent of an audience viewing a 15-second commercial will give up on it. The number jumps to about six per cent for 30 seconds and 6.5 per cent for 60 seconds, says Jeff Boehme, chief research officer for Kantar Media.

Previously, 15-second ads were mostly edited versions of 30-second spots, but that's changing. Advertisers are making shorter commercials as stand-alones. The length is ideal to remind people of products, stores or prices, but not to introduce them.

More than half of commercials run by packaged-goods companies and 60 per cent of fast-food ads are 15 seconds, according to Kantar. The advertisers simply show a picture of the products, flash a price and the brain knows what the marketer means.

Take the new campaign for Burger King, which is selling its breakfast options. A 15-second ad currently airing features a mailman walking down the street carrying a plate of eggs, pancakes and hash browns. There is no verbal description of the product. Instead, he sings: "Did you know that breakfast was served at Burger King? The ultimate breakfast platter. That's what I call delivering."

Shorter ads air more frequently

The shorter ads also mean marketers can be on the air more frequently, even within the same commercial break. For example: During a recent episode of the CBS series How I Met Your Mother, viewers were bombarded with five brief ads in just a minute and a half, including two spots for Dunkin Donuts sandwiched around a more traditional 30-second ad for Aetna.

The quick-hit formula is common in the political ads flooding viewers ahead of next Tuesday's mid-term elections in the U.S. Fifteen seconds is plenty of time for an attack ad that can then be repeated, and repeated again. Such repetition helps beat messages into viewers' heads.   

Big advertisers are driving the shift. Procter & Gamble, the maker of Crest toothpaste and Tide detergent and the world's biggest advertiser, doubled its number of 15-second ads to more than 299,000 last year from the year before.

Walmart, the world's largest retailer, has increased its use of 15-second ads nearly 30-fold to 148,000 last year from only about 5,700 in 2005. The retailer plans even more this holiday season.

Shorter ads can be just as effective as longer ones. Viewers can form new associations — say, knowing about a discount — in a few seconds and then recall that information in just one second, Mitchell says. People can't help soaking up the message.

"When things are working that fast, you can't tell yourself, 'No, I'm not going to think about that'," she says. "Your brain lights up so you don't have a choice."