Commentary

Honey, Please Shrink The Ads

The inventor of LSD passed away this week, but I would like to think that before dying he had some hand in Sony's truly bizarre, mildly hallucinogenic Minisode Network. Online for the past year at MySpace, and available this week on Sprint TV, the Minisode concept shrinks normal TV episodes down radically. An hour-long "Charlie's Angels" show comes in at under five minutes. Every bit of transitional business, idle banter and character development get sliced ruthlessly to render the show down to the bare essential of the story arc.

The end result is something trippy. Watching a radically truncated version of "Charlie's Angels" is a bit like trying to stay awake through prime time in a drunken stupor. It feels as if you kept passing out throughout the hour and haphazardly popped back into consciousness. Or perhaps something like acid was working on your synapses to short-circuit awareness every five seconds or so. You know you just ought to go to bed. But then you might miss a coveted moment (for "Angels" cognoscenti) when "smart one" Kate Jackson says something vaguely butch and suggests a lesbian subtext to the Angels arrangement. See? Now I am having genuine flashbacks to my desperate and depraved adolescence, when we imagined just about anything to make prime-time crap TV interesting.

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Sony claims to have served 1.4 million of these Minisodes online in February, so someone is enjoying them on some level. The Sprint TV Minisode section only has "Married with Children" and the animated "Spider-Man" in addition to "Charlie's Angels." The miniaturization process works here, if at all, only because the source material was so vapid that a 90% cut in content only improves the original. I wish the editors brought a drip of irony to their work, however. A video devoted only to Farrah's puzzled looks, Angel hair flips, or Bosley's disguises would be bad TV worth watching.

What Sony and its sponsor did do well is shrink the pre-roll ad format. The fittingly tiny Honda Fit is the launch sponsor for these free mobile video spots on Sprint TV. The ads themselves are fast and short -- most under 10 seconds -- and get the point across about the Honda through frequency and brevity. From the first time I heard a three-second post-roll audio ad on The Onion Radio News podcast several years ago, I have been championing this approach to mobile media. If you have a fairly loyal base of viewers, you don't need to hit them over the head with lengthy pre-rolls. Very short but ever-present ad units do their work over time. I still know that Chili's was an early Onion sponsor because the short mention ended every daily podcast. If Honda can mix up the ad units a bit more than they have in these Minisodes (I am only seeing two or three right now), then they have a chance to build a brand message over time, rather than cram one into my head in a 20-second pre-roll.

Speaking of both The Onion and video ad innovation, someone over at the satire site continues to think hard about this. The streaming video and vodcast versions of the superb Onion daily news replace the pre-roll with a six-second sponsor teaser image before the program. The full video ad spot follows the main body of the show, but then is followed again by a brief piece of Onion comedy programming. Daily viewers will come to know that they get rewarded for watching the ad by a final bit of satire. And in most instances, the sponsor owns the property at least for a week, so repeated exposures are built into the model.

I am sure that convincing brand advertisers how less really can be more is a hard sell. But both the Sony Minisodes and Onion video demonstrate how the old-fashioned notion of sponsorship mixes well with the emerging notion of brevity combined with frequency. Have clients watch these shows and their ad models and then dare them to forget who sponsored them.

In this era of diffused and dispersed audiences and media properties, the only things that aren't whittled down into smaller shards are the elements that would benefit most from fragmentation, the ads. Make them shorter. Make them punchier. And just for me, make them a little trippier.

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