Only boring ads are boring

‘It only takes a second to score a goal’ is one of the most exasperating things people say. Obviously you hope they are saying it during a football match rather than, say, in the throes of passion, but in any context it’s annoying. It ignores all the effort that has gone into creating the opportunity for the goal to be scored: the passing, the movement, the persistence, the skill, the training – and the luck of course.

I was reminded of this when advertising’s provocative centre forward Trevor Beattie recently announced the death of the 30 second spot. He wasn’t the first to do this and he won’t be the last sadly, but his ‘death’ was different. It wasn’t about the level of TV advertising as a medium but about its unit of consumption. His argument was that, for the “tapas generation”, 30 seconds has become “boring” because “our absorption of information these days is so fast”. His solution was that 5 seconds should become the new basic unit of consumption in TV advertising.

He gave an example. He showed a 5 second ad for Persil which featured a white shirt on a washing line blowing in the breeze on a sunny day with the Persil logo in the corner. It was actually rather lovely and effective, but I’m not entirely sure this approach would be so meaningful for a new detergent brand that hadn’t invested many hours of 30-seconds over decades to become associated with white shirts blowing in a summer breeze on washing lines. Persil has played the beautiful game of advertising for decades to enable it to score that particular goal.

But Trevor’s idea was not, as some have reported, that all ads should be 5 seconds. You could do that now if you wanted to – 2 seconds even; we’ve had blipverts for many years. But why would you want to?

Being anally retentive as we are, we thought we’d check to see what the trends in ad lengths have been in TV over the last 10 years – the supposedly ‘tapas’ years. The most telling thing from the analysis is how little change there has been. Yes, the number of TV ads that are 5 seconds long has increased slightly (but then all ads have increased) but they still make up just 0.1% of total TV advertising.

The number of 30 second ads, however, has dramatically increased, from 3.7 million in 2002 to nearly 19 million in 2012, from 44.7% of all TV ads to 50.9%.

The idea that 30 second TV ads are dead is as ludicrous as saying all TV ads should be 30 seconds long. Advertisers create the ad they need to do the job they want to do. Broadcasters are pretty flexible about this; Hovis’s original ‘Go On lad’ famously was 122 seconds long. In fact, if there’s any trend around time-length it would be that many of the most successful TV ads – the ones that people want to share and talk about and which deliver amazing business results – are longer than 30 seconds: John Lewis, The Guardian’s 3 Little Pigs, Virgin Atlantic, C4’s Superhumans, 3’s dancing pony all spring to mind. Cadbury’s had plenty of people complaining when they started to run the cut-downs of Gorilla and so reverted to running more 90 seconds.

But effectiveness is, as ever, key here. All the major effectiveness studies of recent years – the most recent is Binet and Field’s ‘Advertising Effectiveness: the long and short of it’ – have shown TV advertising getting more effective over time as the number of 30 second ads has grown.

If we want to start a campaign about TV advertising let’s not make it about time-lengths but about quality. I hope Trevor will join me in wishing an end to bad and boring ads, however long they are. Maybe we could all start with TV sponsorship break bumpers (lots of 5 second units in there).

I don’t buy the ‘tapas’ premise; people are prepared to devote considerable time – 3 hour films, entire box sets and doorstep novels – if it is merited. TV is more flexible and less prescriptive than ever. If you want tapas one day, you can have it. If you want six-courses with matching wines the next, it is there for you. You decide.

  • Graeme Wood

    Not sure the longer = more successful argument really works: in my experience 60 or 90″ tend to air because the advertiser already knows they have a hit on their hands (admittedly often because they have been brave enough to allow a hit to exist). On the other hand it would be great to see more innovation with shorter spot lengths, but airtime pricing structure biases against this. Result often being that the longest and shortest executions of an idea end up in owned channels rather than on telly. 

    Completely agree that 5″ will only work creatively for brands already built on 30″ though


      You’re right.  I didn’t mean to suggest that long = successful.  More that when the idea and execution are good people don’t worry about how long an ad is.

      I’ve seen some brain-numbing long ads on TV, but more often on brand websites/YouTube channels.  The supposed ‘freedom’ to run longer copy in owned channels is a debatable benefit IMO and the pain of having to pay for every second is a rather good discipline.

      • Greg Grimmer

        one word . BRILLIANT  and love the fact you did the desk research . 

        Graeme does make valid point ( good ZED training I like to think !) maybe you want to talk him through the proactive time length pricing at MAS ? ( or maybe not ) 

        Tried to tell Trevor that the average duration of all films on you tube is 19 seconds.

        BTW isnt the problem with tapas you always order too much and cant remember what you liked ?