Under the Influence

The unexpected way Nixon's ban on cigarette ads changed TV forever

From the very first 10-minute radio commercial in 1922 to five-second commercials today, the length of ads has changed dramatically over the decades. But it isn't the changing lengths of commercials that’s so fascinating, it’s the reasons why.
Former president Richard Nixon. (Associated Press)

From the very first 10-minute radio commercial in 1922 to five-second commercials today, the length of ads has changed dramatically over the decades. But it isn't the changing lengths of commercials that's so fascinating, it's the reasons why.

A new wave

On April 1st of 1970, Richard Nixon signed legislation banning cigarette advertising on radio and TV in the U.S.

Former president Richard Nixon set 30-second ads in motion. (The Associated Press)
The last cigarette commercial aired at a few minutes to midnight on January 1st, 1971, during Johnny Carson's Tonight Show.

The tobacco industry was a huge advertising category, spending more than $150M on television, or the equivalent of $1B in today's dollars. The loss of that revenue was crippling to the big three networks. They needed to find a new way to attract business.

Enter the 30-second commercial.

30-second ads were less expensive to produce and buy than 60s. These cheaper commercials attracted a whole new category – and revenue pool - of smaller sponsors to network television.

From this point on, the 30-second commercial would become the standard of advertising time. It also introduced the world to one other lasting concept: Advertising clutter.

But one decade later, another wave was about to hit the advertising shores...

I Want My 15-Second Ad

When MTV launched in 1981, videos changed more than the musical landscape.

The quick-cut editing style of music videos greatly influenced the advertising business. As a result, some 30-second commercials had more than 40 edits – meaning more than one per second.

The impact was seismic – because MTV taught young audiences to accept lots of information in a short period of time.

That change opened the door to the arrival of the 15-second commercial in 1984.

They were cheaper to produce, advertisers could afford to buy lots of media time and the quick aspect of the 15s meant they rarely got zapped by viewers.

The lower cost allowed advertisers to "bookend" - which meant placing a 15-second ad at the beginning and end of commercial breaks – the two most important positions to be in. The low cost also allowed ad agencies to produce many more commercials. The speed of fifteen-second commercials also required a new form of storytelling - usually a quick gag and a payoff.

15-second commercials were usually mixed with 30s in campaigns.

And all was well.

Until the 21st century introduced us to an 18-second video… of elephants.

The YouTube generation

The first video ever posted to a new thing called "YouTube" happened on April 23rd, 2005. It was titled "Me at the Zoo."

It showed YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim at the San Diego Zoo looking at elephants:

He and his two partners posted it to the new site they had created to share videos.

By summer of 2006, the site hosted over 65,000 videos and was delivering over 100 million views per day. By 2010, YouTube was the dominant provider of online video in North America. That attracted advertisers. Soon, brands were posting their network TV commercials on YouTube.

But YouTube offered big audiences and longer time limits, so advertisers extended the length of their commercials. Many stretching to two minutes. When Google purchased YouTube in 2006, it began offering "pre-roll" advertising. That meant commercials would roll before the start of the actual video people had come to watch.

Five seconds into the ads, a "skip" box appeared in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen, giving viewers the option to skip the ad if they so desired. Then, in 2015, the advertising industry received a jarring piece of research:

94 per cent of people were skipping the pre-roll ads.

Getting viewers interested enough to pay attention to those first five seconds - let alone watch an ad in its entirety - became a real challenge for advertisers. Until one brand decided to become unskippable.


In 2015, Geico's ad firm "The Martin Agency" had an idea: What if they embraced that five-second window?

Instead of just repurposing their network TV ads into a pre-roll, they created an entire campaign that focused on making the most of those initial 5 seconds.

They called it: "Unskippable."

The campaign featured a series of ads showing people in different cheesy situations. Like, handshaking over a business deal in an office elevator. Or a mom serving a young, 50s-style family a spaghetti dinner.

One person always emphatically uttered the key word that formed the basis of Geico's marketing: "Savings."

Then around the 3-second mark, the actors freeze in place, and then the voiceover breaks the fourth wall and says:

"You can't skip this Geico ad because it's already over. Geico - 15 minutes could save you 15 per cent or more on car insurance."

The ad was unskippable because it was already over. Or was it?

After those initial five seconds, the camera lingers for an uncomfortably long 30-60 seconds on the actors - still standing perfectly still, holding their breath, while the environments around them hilariously continued to move.

In the elevator handshake ad, a woman steps into the elevator and has to awkwardly maneuver around the two frozen businessmen in order to press her floor button:

In the spaghetti dinner scene, the family dog hops up onto the table and starts eating the entire meal while the family remains still and smiling:

And, as a testimony to how powerful the "unskippable" idea really was, it amassed over 14 million views on YouTube – remarkable in a medium renowned for warp-speed ad skipping. And more importantly, the campaign also sparked a record number of insurance quote requests.

Geico's "Unskippable" campaign disrupted the world of pre-roll advertising. It would go on to win over 30 awards, including the Grand Prix at the Cannes advertising festival.

Proving that sometimes all it takes to upend an entire medium is a little thinking…outside the skip box.

For these stories and more from Under The Influence, click or tap on the "Listen" tab to hear the full episode.
You can also find us on the CBC Radio app or subscribe to our Podcast.

Under The Influence is recorded in the Terstream Mobile Recording studio - a 1969 Airstream trailer that's been restored and transformed into a studio on wheels. So host Terry O'Reilly can record the show wherever he goes.
Follow the journey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and search the hashtag: #Terstream.

The Terstream Mobile Recording Studio. (Image Credit: Sidney O'Reilly)