According to the AP this week, the 15-second ad is increasingly common, gradually replacing 30-second spots -- just as the 30-second commercial supplanted full-minute pitches decades ago. The number of 15-second television commercials has jumped more than 70% in five years to nearly 5.5 million last year, according to Nielsen. They made up 34% of all national ads on the air last year, up from 29% in 2005.
Unfortunately shorter ads also mean marketers can be on the air more frequently, even within the same commercial break. For an example, the AP said that during a recent episode of "How I Met Your Mother," viewers were bombarded with five ads in just a minute and a half.
Says the AP: "The repetition helps beat messages into viewers' heads." And then most bizarrely quotes Deborah Mitchell, executive director of the Center for Brand and Product Management at the University of Wisconsin, saying:"When things are working that fast, you can't tell yourself, 'No, I'm not going to think about that.' Your brain lights up so you don't have a choice."
Really? "Your brain lights up so you don't have a choice." Kinda sounds like the rationale for those dusty experiments flashing millisecond messages on movies screens, almost imperceptible to viewers, that allegedly drove them to "Buy Popcorn" without a conscious decision.
And yes, I am very familiar with the idea of people in the grocery aisle reaching for one brand over another driven by a little voice in their subconscious created by repetitive ad exposures. At least that's the theory.
Let me postulate another theory. When "your brain lights up," you very much have a choice. Let's see, there is the mute; switching to another channel for the duration of the pod; fast-forwarding your DVR (or if you have an older Replay TV recorder, skipping ahead in 30-second increments); heading for the bathroom or the kitchen; firing up your BlackBerry to check for new emails; yelling at the kids to finish their homework; reading a magazine or newspaper (assuming yours wasn't delivered wet again); calling your mom to see how her physical therapy is coming along; playing Bejeweled on your cell phone trying to establish a new high score for three minutes of play time; picking your nose (assuming you are watching by yourself); moving the laundry from the washer into the dryer; yelling at the kids to stop fighting; paying a couple of bills.
Or: hating the brand.
There is a very fine line, getting smaller all the time, between making your brand memorable in a way that might make long-suffering viewers give it a shot next time they go shopping, and pissing them off to the point that they not only swear to never buy your brand, they encourage all of their friends (and online buddies) to boycott your product or service. I know there is all sorts of voodoo science behind the theory and practice of reach and frequency and how many exposures are necessary to incite someone to try your brand. But in the age of consumer control of electronic media, this badly needs to be updated.
I will stop fast-forwarding or unmute a commercial I have never seen before (reason number 2 for watching the Super Bowl). But that's it. I got it. I don't want to see it again on TV. If I want to see it again, I will go online and find it. Worried I won't see it the first time because your media plan can only cover so much ground? Then come up with a better idea. Here's one.
Email me a list of commercials you plan to run this week. I will check off the ones that interest me. Send me links only to those ads and I promise to watch them, since they will be relevant to my current needs or just my current curiosity. Either way, I am an in-market buyer (or soon will be) and am worth far more than the millions of folks you reach who don't care about what you are selling. I might even buy the product right off of your commercial. How cool would that be?
Now talk to the tech folks and figure out how to do all this through a cable box, so I can use the remote to make my selections, navigate the links and possibly make a purchase. Then, we can all be friends again.
Countdown to Cancellation (see my last column): WSJ delivered wet twice this past week. (Humorous aside: automated apology for shitty service asks me to give the WSJ as a Xmas gift.)