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Breaking the 30-Second Barrier

The impending demise of the 30-second commercial has been a theme of numerous reports, articles, speeches and surveys ever since TiVo and other digital video recorders came to town and made it possible to easily fast-forward through the spots.

While some consumers would no doubt cheer in that event, marketers have devoted themselves to answering the challenge. At Initiative Media, an agency whose most recent compilation of its own work is called "Beyond the 30-Second Commercial," one primary strategy is integrating brands directly into entertainment programs, said Tim Spengler, executive vice president and director for national broadcast.

In another tactic, some marketers, like the BMW of North America division of BMW, are experimenting with "short films," also known as "long commercials," which run up to nearly nine minutes but appear solely online.

A third approach still uses program breaks on television to reach consumers by mixing up the format with commercials that are longer or shorter than 30 seconds.

Starting this month and continuing through the fall, Under Armour Performance Apparel in Baltimore is running a 90-second commercial to try to break through the clutter.

The Under Armour "MicroMovie," as the company calls its commercial, needs that much time to build momentum and tell a story that would never fit into a traditional spot, said Steve Battista, director for marketing at Under Armour, which sells sports clothing.

"Our goal with our advertising is always about building brand," Mr. Battista said. "From that standpoint, we're not selling one garment or one product in 30 seconds. If we were talking about a car, I can see where the 30-second would still be relevant."

The long spot, which was created by the company's in-house marketing team, shows the intense pregame preparations of a fictional football team that is intent to "protect this house," the theme begun in Under Armour commercials last year. The long spot is supported by other 30-second commercials.

With "regular" commercials already called boring by many consumers, one obvious risk of making commercials longer is making them even more tedious.

"When you tell people that you're going to have a 90-second commercial before they see the creative, they think 'that's going to be a long time watching a commercial,' " Mr. Battista said. When they watch the Under Armour megaspot, though, they lose track of time, he said.

Other tentative steps away from what might be called the House of 30 Seconds include the sponsorship of commercial-free episodes of shows like "24" on Fox and "Nip/Tuck" on F/X.

But the 30-second commercial is not becoming endangered by any means.

"TV is not going away by any stretch," said Tami Jones, a spokeswoman at Procter & Gamble, which has often said it wants to engage consumers outside traditional means. Executives there are not abandoning television or even the staple of 30-second advertising, though Procter has invested heavily in working its products onto the sets of television shows like "Survivor: All Stars," which featured 20 Procter brands, Ms. Jones said.

And so far, deviating from the 30-second template in television advertising remains unusual, according to research compiled by Nielsen Monitor-Plus, part of VNU.

During the first quarter of 2002, 30-second spots comprised 79 percent of commercials on the air, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus. In the first quarter of the year, the most recent data available, 30-second spots made up 77.52 percent.

Just as traditional commercials did not go away, nontraditional commercials increased their presence only marginally. The proportion of 15-second commercials increased to 13.44 percent in the first quarter of this year, up from 12.17 percent two years before, for example.

That was the biggest increase for commercials of any length. The next runner-up, the 60-second spot, represented 7.44 percent of commercials in the first quarter of 2004, up from 6.88 percent two years earlier.

Mr. Spengler, the executive at Initiative, a unit of the Interpublic Group of Companies, said a commercial's length was one ingredient in a campaign but not the most central.

"You can't say that one type of duration is better or worse than the others," he said. "Creativity is a big part of it."


Nat Ives, The New York Times. July 28, 2004.

Copyright © 2004 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.