Upfronts: Meet The Power Players In

Americans will spend anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour watching a TV drama like “24” or “The Good Wife,” but just seconds scanning any of the tens of commercials that support those shows. With that in mind, Arby’s in late May released a commercial that was 13 hours in length – more than ten times the amount necessary to eat the sandwich that would inevitably contain that protein.

The ad, a look at how the fast-food emporium smoked brisket, played out only on a local MyNetwork affiliate in Duluth, Minn., but word of the stunt was enough to lure 350,000 unique visitors to a website where the average visit lasted 38 minutes, according to Matt Heath, a creative director at Publicis Groupe ad shop Fallon, which created the commercial.

“We have a story to tell and information to share,” said Rob Lynch, chief marketing officer at Arby’s. “We are not going to accomplish all of that in a 30-second spot.”

Over the decades, the venerable TV commercial has dropped much of its heft. In the early days of the medium, an ad typically lasted 60 seconds. In 2014, a viewer is likely to encounter a mix of ads lasting just 15 seconds to 30 seconds in length. On digital venues like YouTube or Hulu, the ads can be even shorter. And yet, a few advertisers think bulkier ads deserve more space.

Firestone, the tire maker that has not been an active national advertiser as of late, recently unveiled a 90-second commercial that placed less emphasis on the tires and more on the story of a young couple trying to escape small-town life in a flatbed truck. A range of blue-chip sponsors including Chrysler and Samsung have run ads in the last several Super Bowls lasting between 90 seconds and two minutes. In 2012, jeweler Cartier ran a massive three-minute-and-30-second ad across CBS, ABC and NBC at about the same time on each outlet. Chipotle and Old Navy have also tested lengthier pitches in recent years.

“It is a myth that consumers reject long ads. They reject uninteresting ads, irrelevant ads or ads that insult their intelligence, and unfortunately these represent the majority of what consumers encounter,” said Kelly O’Keefe, a professor of creative brand management at the VCU Brandcenter, a graduate school specializing in advertising at Virginia Commonwealth University. “For ads like these, even 10 seconds is intolerable, so many viewers just skip them. But life isn’t shaped by 30-second moments, and if a story is relevant, compelling and well told, consumers have proven that they are interested.”

Firestone didn’t intend to run a spot that is the equivalent of three 30-second ads, explained Charley Wickman, an executive creative director at Publicis Groupe’s Leo Burnett, the agency behind the campaign. But when the agency sent an uncut version of the commercial lasting 1 minute and 37 seconds to its client, marketing executives thought it best to stick with what they had. Firestone’s media plan had reserved a bunch of 15-second and 30-second slots on TV networks, Wickman said, but executives thought the commercial’s cinematic quality would “elevate our brand and help get interest in our brand,” and decided to stick with the lengthier take.

Creating a longer ad is only part of the job. Getting the behemoth placed properly on TV is another. When Chrysler sought a two-minute Super Bowl berth for an eyebrow-raising spot featuring music from Eminem and the slogan “Imported from Detroit” in 2011, Fox, the network hosting the event, had to work with other sponsors to rearrange the ad lineup and make room, according to people familiar with the situation.

Cost is also a factor. A 90-second ad would presumably cost three times as much as a 30-second spot, while a two-minute commercial would cost four times as much one of regular length. In a  high-demand program like a Super Bowl broadcast or a top-rated show, those dollars can become very significant very quickly.

In Firestone’s case, the tire manufacturer changed its media strategy, said Leo Burnett’s Wickman. The ad, which featured the Daniel Johnston song “True Love Will Find You In The End,” was deliberately placed in shows that had some musical or Americana connotations, including CMT’s “Crossroads,” NBC’s “The Voice,” and ABC’s “Nashville.” The thought, he said, is that a more dynamic commercial will be remembered better by viewers and will not need to r n as frequently as something that is shorter and more commonplace.

Just because an ad is dramatic and longer than consumers are accustomed doesn’t mean it will be watched. “Attention is becoming a scarcer resource as there is so much more competition for your attention on a daily basis,” said Thomas Ksiazek, a professor of communication at Villanova University who studies audience behavior and media use. “To go with something that is longer, on its face would seem to be counterintuitive,” he said. “I’m skeptical as to whether it will work on a larger scale,” he added.

Ad-agency executives believe the time-consuming entreaties can find viewership if they are made to follow a particular strategy, rather than thrown on to TV willly-nilly. “Look, in the world of content, the answer to everything is the same: If it’s good, it’s good. It will get seen, ” Wickman said. “If they don’t like it, they are not going to pass it along and they are not going to talk about it.”

At a time when Americans see a barrage of promotional pitches every day that last mere seconds, however, Wickman thinks longer-lasting commercials might fare better. “People are used to a shot of whiskey, not a glass. You give them the glass, and that alone is different,” he said. “The question is, how good is the whiskey? Are you going to finish it?”

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