Instagram’s recent decision to sell 60-second video spots looks like yet another attempt by a digital platform to eat into traditional TV advertising budgets. But pushing in the opposite direction – towards ads even as short as 3-5 seconds – represents another future that could make both TV and digital advertising a better deal for advertisers, platforms, and consumers.
To understand why, it’s first worth questioning why some in the industry assume today’s TV ads offer more value than other options. I still hear, for example, some traditional TV executives deride emerging digital formats as too short, commanding little attention, and generally not much more than a con trick from their wily Silicon Valley-based creators.
But why are TV ads as long as they are?
I’m no media historian, but my understanding is that TV ads started out longer and got shorter as broadcasters sought to maximize value for advertisers and minimize disruption for viewers. Today’s spots tend to be 30 or 60 seconds long, with 10-second spots occasionally employed.
But it’s hard not to conclude that broadcasters have been less interested in finding the right balance than working out what they can get away with in order to sell more air time. Why else would the number of minutes of advertising for every hour of programming be regulated in the vast majority of countries?
Only recently have broadcasters begun to think about the consumer. Turner plans to reduce the number of ads per hour, known as “ad loads,” for its TNT and TruTV channels by as much as 50%. Viceland, the channel to be launched by digital upstart Vice Media this month, will similarly allow just eight minutes of ads per hour, according to media reports.
Bear in mind that we’re talking about the US here. If you’re from Europe, the amount of ads on US TV can feel bewildering and depressing, with nearly 20 minutes per hour. The moves by Turner and Vice will only bring their ad loads broadly in line with those of most channels in Europe.
In any case, the industry’s track record gives me little confidence that these levels are anywhere close to an optimum balance for the modern consumer.
Vice’s approach, at least, is refreshingly honest. The company doesn’t believe traditional TV is a superior medium, but is investing because it’s where “75% of the world’s advertising budgets” are still being spent, CEO Shane Smith told The Hollywood Reporter trade journal.
In other words, while there’s still a party, why not enjoy the wine? The advantage Vice has is that it can continue the party with its thriving digital business, while rivals that have over-indulged on the excesses of traditional TV advertising will be struggling with their hangovers.