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TV Commercials Adjust to a Shorter Attention Span

To what lengths will television advertisers go to be noticed amid a sea of 30-second commercials? How about 120 seconds, or 90, or perhaps 45 or 40. Maybe 10 seconds, or 15, or 10 - or even a "blink and you may miss it" 5.

Three decades after the 30-second spot became the standard way to sell products on television, marketers are increasingly willing to buy commercials in different lengths - and to run them in different configurations.

For instance, a campaign for Puma athletic wear scheduled to start Monday will feature buff athletes in 15-second spots to be paired, in mix-and-match fashion, in 30-second time slots. And to promote three cars that can go from zero to 60 miles an hour in under 5 seconds, the Cadillac division of General Motors recently ran 5-second commercials.

"People are trying anything they can to get the message across," said Aaron Cohen, executive vice president and director for broadcast at Horizon Media in New York, a media services agency that works for advertisers like Geico and Ikea North America.

Commercials longer than 30 seconds are intended to attract attention by giving marketers more time to tell stories that would appeal to viewers. Those shorter than 30 seconds are meant to have surprise value: they are usually over before commercial-haters can zap or zip past them.

The shorter commercials offer another benefit, Mr. Cohen said: because they cost less, advertisers can either save money or "increase the frequency of the spots with the same budget" that would have been spent on 30-second spots.

When television began as an advertising medium, the standard commercial length was 60 seconds. Thirty-second spots began running not long after cigarette commercials left the airwaves in 1971, Mr. Cohen said.

The television networks, worried about the lost ad revenue from tobacco marketers, started offering 30-second spots at lower prices than their 60-second counterparts "to make it more financially attractive" for other advertisers to buy time, Mr. Cohen said.

The 15-second commercial began to appear in the late 1980's as a way to compensate for the rapidly rising cost of 30-second spots. (The cost of a 15-second spot generally is slightly more than half of a 30-second ad.) According to an analysis released this week by Media IQ, an auditing company in New York, 15-second spots account for more than 36 percent of all commercial time sold by the major broadcast networks.

"It's hard to keep consumers excited about your TV spots when everyone has a kajillion-dollar budget," said Antonio Bertone, global director for brand management at Puma in Boston.

"I like the 15-second format because they're flirtations, if you will; they tease you," he added. "And it's more digestible, especially for the attention spans that exist today. You don't want to be like a joke that goes on too long."

The athletes in the Puma commercials, which were created internally, are Johnny Damon of the Boston Red Sox, the soccer player Cobi Jones and the skateboarder Scott Bourne. Each appears in his own 15-second spot and the spots are then paired in 30-second slots in configurations like Jones-Damon, Jones-Bourne and Damon-Bourne. The Puma media agency is Zenith Media in New York, part of the ZenithOptimedia division of the Publicis Groupe.

Another innovative arrangement is a series of paired commercials created by Venables, Bell & Partners in San Francisco for iShares, a family of investment funds traded on exchanges that are sold by Barclays Global Investors. The agency produced three commercials, each in 20- and 40-second lengths, then matched them in various combinations in 60-second time slots.

"A 60-second commercial seemed too creatively extravagant," said Paul Venables, co-creative director at Venables, Bell, "and a 30 felt like it was shortchanging the story of exchange-traded funds."

Despite the desire among many marketers to find alternatives to television as the medium grows more expensive and cluttered, "TV is still effective because it reaches people quickly and has all the powers of emotion," Mr. Venables said.

"But if you're going to be on TV," he added, "you have to find new ways to use it to make sure you're not ignored." Venables, Bell handles the media planning for iShares; the media buying is handled by the Palisades Media Group in Santa Monica, Calif.

There are several companies that specialize in 10-second spots, among them TV10s, an affiliate of KSL Media in New York. Ten-second commercials run at the beginning or end of programs to announce sponsorship of closed captioning for hearing-impaired viewers or to identify so-called promotional considerations, as when marketers supply merchandise as prizes for game shows.

"If you can cut from a 30 to a 15, you can cut to a 10," said Kal Liebowitz, chief executive of TV10s and KSL. "They're so efficient, very respectful of the dollar."

"Our biggest problem is selling the creatives on doing 10's," he added, referring to the copywriters and art directors at agencies. Still, advertisers that sponsor 10-second commercials include Borders, Geico, LendingTree and Sweet 'N Low.

It is not much of a stretch to go from a 10-second spot to one that is half that length, particularly if, like Cadillac, the length of the commercial can be intrinsic to the message about introducing three cars - the CTS-V, STS-V and XLR-V - with V-8 and supercharged engines that let them go from zero to 60 in under 5 seconds.

"The whole idea was, That's how fast these vehicles are," said Jay Spenchian, who was the marketing director at Cadillac in Detroit until last week, when General Motors promoted him to general manager of a sibling division, Saab Cars USA. The commercials were created by Chemistri in Troy, Mich., part of Publicis.

"We thought the 5-second commercials would attract a lot of attention and make an impact on people who might not consider Cadillac," Mr. Spenchian added, "and they definitely did." The commercials were accompanied by a Web site (cadillacunder5.com) and a contest for aspiring filmmakers to create five-second movies.

Seeking alternatives to the practice of running one 30-second spot after another is not new. After 15-second commercials became popular, many advertisers who bought them ran them in an eye-catching format known as a bookend: two 15-second spots run at the start and end of a block of commercials, bracketing spots for other, unrelated products.

And in 1998, Master Lock, owned by Fortune Brands, ran what it called the world's first 1-second commercial, which showed a lock still working after a bullet pierced it and a close-up of the brand logo.

Shorter spots are perfect for products like Master Lock "that already have very, very high brand recognition that don't have to explain what they are or what they do," said Gene DeWitt, chairman at DeWitt Media Options in New York, a media-strategy consulting company.

"But lots of other products would be committing commercial suicide if they didn't use more time," he added.

The trend toward alternative lengths and formats will only accelerate, Mr. DeWitt predicted: "Down the road, I'm convinced we'll be able to choose our lengths. There'll be no reason not to do a 7-second spot or a 14 or a 33."

 

Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. April 8, 2005

Copyright © 2005 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.