SMITH BRAIN TRUST – Glance down to send a text and you could miss one: Fox Sports is rolling out new 6-second television commercials for the start of the NFL season. The move to exceptionally short ad spots comes after the network saw a dip in viewership last season, to 16.5 million, from 17.9 million the season before. But the move is likely about much more than ratings, says Michel Wedel, the PepsiCo Chair in Consumer Science at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. Shorter ads just make sense, he says.
For starters, as consumers, our attention spans are notably shorter than they once were, according to several studies on the matter.
And there are more devices with more distracting capability at our fingertips than ever before. We are often watching television with our smartphones and tablets at our sides, tempting us to look away from the television, with the latest tweets, emails and texts. Throw in the temptation to go grab beverages and snacks from the kitchen, and it's just a lot for an advertiser to compete with.
A six-second advertisement, which begins and ends in the amount of time it takes Don Draper to pour himself an Old Fashioned, could deliver to advertisers a higher prize-per-second ratio, Wedel says. In other words, brands might see a better return on investment by placing more frequent, but shorter ads.
"What should those very commercials look like? Should they be just a shorter version of the type of commercials that people have been typically been producing, or should they communicate in a different way?" Wedel asks. "That's something we are just beginning to find out."
Fox began experimenting with the 6-second ad format a few weeks ago, during its broadcast of the Teen Choice Awards, where ads sold for $75,000. Premium 6-second NFL ad spots, meanwhile, could fetch about $200,000. Fox plans to mix the short-spots into game breaks alongside the old-school longer ones. The network might also drop them into new spaces, like little boxes near the sidelines.
The goal, experts say, is eventually to reduce the number of commercial breaks and total commercial minutes per game. And that may be good for ratings. Lengthy and frequent commercial breaks are among the top complaints about televised football. Commercials have never been the highlight of watching television, but today's consumer, perhaps spoiled by commercial-free options like Netflix and HBO, have become increasingly intolerant of long commercial breaks.
"Thirty seconds is too long. And even 15 seconds may sometimes be too long," Wedel says. "Consumers are just not willing to spend that much time anymore on advertising."
Already, consumers are used to seeing super-short spots on Facebook and YouTube pre-roll. They're just not used to seeing them on television, where 15- and 30-second ad stories have long reigned supreme.
The question emerging for marketers is how to make the most of the precious few seconds they might wrest from consumers. An important component of that question is how marketers might use those seconds to drive consumers to interact with the brand across other channels and in real life.
"Already, companies in their TV commercials are referring to their Twitter and Facebook pages, and encouraging consumers to engage with them online," Wedel says. "It gets them even more bang for the buck, and that is something you can do really well in these shorter commercials."
Very short ads may be an easy fit for well established brands. Flash a Pepsi, and everyone knows what they're looking at. But for less-established brands, or brands with a complex message, brevity might not be best.
In his current research, Wedel is examining the effectiveness of ultra-short film trailers. Increasingly companies are using very brief, 20-second trailers and teaser trailers, meant to offer a taste of a film that's yet to come. The trailers, he says, can evoke even more favorable responses among viewers than their lengthier counterparts.
But it has to be done right, he adds. "If you make sure that the film's emotional message is adequately sampled in that shorter clip, you can create a trailer that works better than the original," he says. The trick, he says, as with all advertising, "is to put viewers in the right mood."
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