Short vs long format ads: the wrong debate

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I love short duration ads – the ones which are 20 seconds or under.

The ad commercial is a challenging audio visual medium – telling a compelling, engaging story that too with a business objective in 30-seconds is fascinating. And to do it in even shorter duration is no mean feat (Miller Lite ran 1-second commercials during Super Bowl in 2009). Shorter duration commercials also have an advantage from a media investment POV – the client can simply afford to run the spot more often, for a longer period of time.

In this context, long format commercials (one minute or more) are frowned upon as being impractical, ineffective, indulgent etc. There is truth in that. Most clients, especially those in FMCG simply put an embargo on anything more than 30-seconds for their TV ads. In highly competitive mass market categories, especially in expensive media markets, it does not make business sense to run long format ads.

Impact, creativity, relevance, repeat value: even in this attention-span starved digital age, there are takers for long reads. Articles and fiction in properties like Atlantic, New Yorker, Wired, TechCrunch, Verge have a faithful audience. There are mobile apps too which showcase long reads. While we all understand the need for short, crisp communication, we also agree that there is place for long reads – as long as they make for compelling, riveting read. The caveat however, is that not every long read is a riveting read. Conversely, not every short-form communication has an impact.

The same principle applies to TVCs too. Short duration ads automatically do not make for more sensible advertising. Most FMCG ads follow a cookie-cutter approach with strong category codes any way. Most of them are plain boring, mediocre ads depending on media muscle for impact & memorability. One of Indian advertising greats used to say to his clients: ‘don’t outspend your competition, outwit them’. While advertising folks should never set out to create communication with duration in mind (as a constraint), fact is, it does affect them subliminally. Every FMCG copywriter will reject an idea in her own mind if she thinks it warrants more than 40-seconds of air time. With diktats like product window and consumption shots also being forced on them, it is natural that most creatives is on expected lines.

The advantage of a well-made, clutter breaking, creative ad – irrespective of its format (long vs short duration, full page vs. quarter page etc.) is that it’s impact is far greater than a run-of-the-mill ad. An example that comes to mind is the Amul topical outdoor campaign. The billboards have always been few and far between (in select vantage positions in each city). Many other brands have a carpet-bombing approach in outdoor. But very few brands can match the impact of the Amul hoardings – topical, creative and talked about. It has nothing to do with scale of the campaign. Ditto with so many of the full-page ads from e-commerce brands – most of them are eminently forgettable.

Online video and its potential halo effect on the brand: a recent phenomena which has stirred a debate on ad duration is the YouTube video. The lack of restrictions on duration has its own set of challenges. Just because it is possible to make and air a 5-minute film, it doesn’t mean brands should do it. The chances of a consumer switching off, moving away and worse still, dissing it in public are higher here. However, the upside of a video being liked and shared is a very attractive proposition and brands pray that this happens. An online film created for Schweppes was a full 12-minute long and went on to garner over 10mn views; there are countless examples of viral hits which have gone on to create both online & offline buzz, like the Google Search ‘Reunion’ ad.

We should also bear in mind that clutter-breaking creative doesn’t happen all the time. In my view, it is not just true of advertising but of all popular media. Most of the stuff that is out there in media – books, music, art, journalism…they are all routine, mediocre stuff. Very rarely do we find memorable creative work that stands out from the pack. In advertising too, that is the case.

In the final analysis, it is not about duration of an ad or the size (half page vs. double spread) but about focus, relevance, creativity and impact. The ad supposedly used by Sir Ernest Shackleton – a small classified ad, to recruit volunteers for his expedition is legendary and still talked about after all these years.

“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”

Another quotation, from the 1950s, is also timeless:

“Nobody reads ads. People read what interests them. Sometimes it’s an ad.” —Howard Gossage” 

One can update it to a contemporary version of ‘People read, watch or interact with what interests them. Sometimes it’s an ad, a tweet, a Facebook post, an apps, a blog, a YouTube video…and so on’.

Therein lies a lesson…or two.

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