What's the point of six-second ads?
Creativity Marketing Transformation

What’s with 6-Second Ads? In Short, It’s Complicated

5 Minute Read

Six-second ads have been a quiet rumbling in the marketing landscape since YouTube showcased the new format at Sundance in January. But for the average media consumer, the latest shift in video marketing didn’t appear on their radar until the start of football season, when Fox began running these condensed ads alongside normal 15- and 30-second spots during NFL games.

On its face, the new six-second ad format appears to be a long-awaited sop to consumers’ growing intolerance for interrupt advertising. In many ways, it’s a logical move. When 15-second commercials debuted in the ’80s, the rationale was that they were a response to younger consumers’ shortened attention spans. With the MTV generation all grown up and lamenting the supposed short attention spans of their own offspring, an even shorter ad makes intuitive sense.

So is this move by mainstream media the death knell for interrupt advertising? Not exactly. The six-second ad is only a compromise, not a solution, to the growing ineffectiveness of interrupt advertising—and one that potentially brings new problems for brands to address.

six-second ads debut on nfl

Who’s Leading the Charge?

It would be easier to consider the six-second ad an unambiguously positive development if the movement were being driven by brands looking for better ways to connect with an ad-weary audience. Instead, it’s the content providers, not the advertisers, who are reacting to audience preferences. According to a New York Times report, Fox Sports is attempting to appease broadband audiences habituated to online content consumption, who they hope will be willing to stay on the couch through commercial breaks if only they are shorter.

It’s not exactly altruism on the network’s part. It’s partly practicality, since short ads fit into breaks in the game better than standard 30-second spots. And since Fox is reportedly charging as much for their six-second spots as they do for 15, they’re not exactly making a financial sacrifice to mollify viewers. In fact, they could theoretically bring in more ad revenue while cutting down on total time in commercial breaks, allowing them to better compete with ad-free streaming services.

The overarching narrative from Fox is that the new ad format reflects consumer preferences. That may well be true, but the test will be whether Fox expands the six-second ad to other types of programming, where the more lucrative 30-second standard still reigns supreme, and whether other media players follow suit.

A Challenge to Brand Storytelling

The kneejerk reaction amongst content marketers—many of whom have been fighting the good fight in favor of long-form content—has been to throw up our hands. Celebrated brand storyteller David Beebe recently wrote that “marketers, agencies, and YouTube are on the wrong side of history with the six-second ad format.” Ouch.

The issue here is two-fold. The first issue is that, shorter or no, advertisements continue to stand between consumers and the content they want to consume. A six-second ad, whether before a YouTube video or squeezed between plays of a football game, is an interruption, if a brief one. Shortening said interruption is the marketer’s equivalent of being asked to do the dishes and merely stacking them in the sink: directionally correct, but insufficient.

An oversimplification of the answer to this problem is for brands to produce content that is itself entertaining, mimicking the media companies that they would otherwise be interrupting. This in turn illuminates the second issue: Can a brand possibly tell a worthwhile story in a paltry six seconds?

Six Seconds: Sufficient for Story?

In recent years, the trend in video marketing has been in the complete opposite direction. High-gloss mini-movies have been held up as the antidote to traditional ad spots (think Marriott’s action-comedy short film “Two Bellmen” or Yeti’s beautiful documentary-style profiles). These long-form videos would never fit in traditional television ad spots, nor do they need to; they are meant to be consumed as content in their own right, to be deliberately sought out and shared amongst friends.

At first glance, a six-second ad flies in the face of the move towards brand storytelling—but it isn’t necessarily so. Take, for example, agency Mother New York’s “High Diver,” which aired at Sundance:

In the briefest of stories, it manages to convey a deeply emotional and impactful message. While the constraints of the six-second format may present a storytelling challenge, they still represent an opportunity to display the best storytelling principles. Creator Maud Dietch told Ad Week that “you sort of have to understand your subject matter, your medium, your production tools so much more intimately in order to make use of six seconds in an effective way.”

Micro-stories of this type aren’t exactly new, either. Erstwhile social media app Vine (RIP) led to an explosion of user-generated video content, all capped at six seconds. And flash fiction—exceptionally brief short stories—has a venerable history, too. Constraints, considered wisely, can be a creative boon.

Football with a Side of Snackable Content

In a recent article for the Content Standard, Bethany Johnson wrote:

Snackable content is not the solution to a weak message. On the other hand, if your message is clear, strong, and poignant, then bite-sized treats may be the best delivery.

Applied to an adjacent context, her message holds: The length of the content is a secondary concern. The debate over six seconds versus 15 or 30 obscures the real questions about how brands engage an audience.

Insofar as shorter ads are a response, however belated, to consumer preferences, they are a positive if insufficient development. And creatives are as likely to rise to the occasion with this new format as they are with any new trend: Some will succeed spectacularly, some will fail spectacularly, and most will be spectacularly mediocre. None of it truly solves the problems of interrupt advertising, but at least the crummy ones will be easier to ignore.

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Featured image: Parker Byrd

Rachel Haberman is a consummate word nerd with a lifelong fascination with all things language. She holds a BA in Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences from Wellesley College. Before joining Skyword, Rachel managed content marketing for an international development and strategy consulting firm. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and two cats named after physicists.

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