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It’s been an interesting week for reporting on TV commercials, with findings that tend to go against many long-held assumptions about commercial impact. In particular, two reports in the trades this week seemed to counter our assumptions about how the length of commercials affect viewer recall.
In the early days of TV, the average in-program break featured one 60-second message, sometimes accompanied by an 8-10 second “word from our sponsor.” This situation changed with the introduction of :30s, which generated about 75% of the aided recall levels of :60s, but at half the cost. As a result, they rapidly became the standard unit of the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1990s, the situation repeated itself, this time with :15s, which purportedly generated 75% of the aided recall levels of :30s, again at half the cost. Although they did not supplant :30s as TV’s standard ad unit, :15s nevertheless became a common aid to increase frequency among major advertisers and an entry point for advertisers with smaller budgets to break into the medium. Now, a viewer of national TV can expect to see mostly a blend of :30s and :15s, with an occasional :60 thrown in for good measure. It was understood that these smaller units were less effective, but the price benefits outweighed most concerns on this subject.
But it looks like things are about to change again, with the growing use of 6-second spots. One might expect that once again advertisers are willing to take a hit on ad impact to save money, but this week the ARF released findings that contradict the expected lower impact of shorter ads. In fact, the ARF report (which was conducted with TVision Insights, whom we have worked with on several occasions) showed that :06s generated 8% more attention than :30s and 11% more attention than :15s. It should be noted that these ads usually appear either first in a pod or as a stand-alone, which is a distinct advantage. There are questions that will need to be answered before these findings can be considered definitive, including whether there was any corroborative research conducted for identical brand campaigns that measured verified ad recall, message registration and/or sales motivation for other various ad lengths. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting reversal.
The second study, from Nielsen, addresses its new technology that compresses a 30-second ad into a 15-second ad, allowing advertisers to get more coverage for their media spend. Although the release was light on details, Nielsen studied 80 different campaigns where this technique was used and found that the compressed :15 performed better in key metrics, including action intent, ad effectiveness, attention and memory. Interesting, but were these ads examined in a vacuum, so to speak? And how effective will they be in real world settings? Research has shown that clutter has a negative effect on viewer recall of commercials, but as we discuss in the article below, a report this week suggested that it might not be as severe as once thought.
Perhaps we are indeed reaching a turning point, where our shortened attention spans and comfort level with multiple data streams—as facilitated through our smartphones—has made the :15, and maybe even the :06 a more effective ad length. Is 30 seconds too much to ask of a consumer? Only time—and research—will tell.
The trades recently covered a report from FreeWheel (Comcast’s video management platform) that made some interesting claims about the effects of reduced ad clutter on consumer engagement. Namely, the report cited that reducing the number of ads by 50% or more would only increase viewers’ commercial engagement by 7%. This is surprising to us, considering that multi-decade trends show that as commercial loads increased, unaided recall decreased drastically; for example, between the early- to mid-1960s and the early-1990s (a period with arguably the greatest growth in commercial clutter), the primetime commercial loads increased 31%, while unaided recall of the a recently seen commercial decreased by 70%. It would therefore be reasonable to expect that cutting commercial loads by 50% or more would have more of an impact than the FreeWheel report suggests.
It could be that in today’s frenetic, short attention span media environment, people are able to process a barrage of messages more easily, leading to little improvement in engagement numbers just because there are fewer ads to process. Or perhaps viewers just tune out ads, no matter how few there are. In both cases, the unimpressive results are the same.
These findings present a potential problem, given that a number of the major TV networks have announced initiatives to greatly reduce clutter in primetime and/or create exclusive commercial placements designed to improve viewer engagement—at substantial higher CPMs. Where is the engagement research to justify these premium CPM rates? FreeWheel specialized in video content, so it might be expected that their numbers would show their platform in a more positive light than linear TV, but the networks will need to show that the extra CPM investment is worth it, if they expect advertisers to pony up.