Home/ Opinion / Columns/  Life beyond the 30-second audio-visual advertisement

Ever since the birth of broadcast television, the 30-second audio-visual ad spot has been the undisputed weapon of persuasion deployed by the advertising industry. Over the years, this industry perfected the art of storytelling in half a minute. Some of the TV commercials run by global brands like Apple, Nike, Budweiser and Indian brands like Fevicol are testimony to the brilliance of that ability. But the entrainment value of the 30-second commercial cannot hide the fact that it’s an uninvited guest in our living rooms. These ad spots are strategically placed in the target audience’s favourite programme. So if one had to watch a cricket match or a favoured serial on TV, there was no option but to watch it interspersed with commercial messages.

The first significant blow to the hegemony of the 30-second commercial came in the 1990s. With the advent of the remote-control handset, TV viewers began shifting channels, especially so during ad breaks. But the biggest blow to the dominance of this format came from smartphones. With arrival of these internet-wired gadgets, the individual became the decision maker of what advertising messages s/he wanted to receive. Users mercilessly swiped away anything they were not interested in. Today, ad blocking technology is gaining momentum and advertising-free content is a much sought-after feature of many a medium. All indications are that the relevance of the 30- second commercial is fast declining.

What was once a cultural touchpoint now seems doomed to be relegated to the dustbin of 20th-century artefacts, right up there with the audio cassettes, VHS players and rotary-dial telephones. With the loss of the 30-second ad spot’s significance, marketing executives are now like warriors in a battlefield without a weapon in hand.

What is the alternative to the 30-second commercial? Some say it is the 15-second commercial, while others favour a 6-second format for message delivery. Yet, this is not as simple as a time-span crunch. The 30-second commercial had a structure to its communication. In its initial part, typically, it sought to establish the need for the product being advertised. This was followed by a demonstration of the product in action and finally by an exposition of its functional and emotional benefits. The idea of shortened ad spots seems like an attempt to squeeze the same old structure into a shorter time frame. This incremental approach to developing new marketing stimuli for today’s era is not going to take marketers very far.

Smartphones have clearly replaced TVs as the world’s main medium of communication. The average amount of time spent by users on smartphones is now more than 4 hours per day. But the amount of time that users spend on a particular screen—the time between one swipe and the next, that is—has been reducing. The average attention span between two swipes is now around 4.3 seconds. So even a 5-second message or any other vestigial version of the 30-second commercial cannot fit into this new world of smartphones.

Bear in mind that the classic 30-second format was designed for audiences watching TV in their living rooms. So any purchase decision triggered among viewers, if at all it happened, was something that occurred days if not weeks after viewing the advertisement. The main objective of the 30-second commercial was not to induce immediate purchase behaviour, but to ensconce a brand in people’s minds for a long-term purpose that could range from plain recall to a shift in disposition or attitude. The focus was on catchy story lines, jingles and characters that could raise the memorability of the advertised brand. But in today’s world of e-commerce, the main role of marketing stimuli is to induce brand purchase within few seconds of being exposed to it.

Inducing a purchase decision is not just about making a banner advertisement that shouts “Buy now, price off". There is much that happens in the human brain in the milliseconds leading up to a purchase. The more closely we understand what occurs in these pre-purchase microseconds, the more able we will be to create marketing stimuli that prompts a purchase decision.

It is important to grasp snap decisions. Note that in a game like cricket, the batsman has less than half a second to take a stroke call after the ball is released by the bowler. Neuroscience studies of what happens in the batsman’s brain in that moment have revolutionized the way the game is played.

A smartphone stays with consumers throughout their waking hours. It is a wasted opportunity if such an always-on, always-with-you medium is used by marketers only to cue a purchase, which is infrequent behaviour. Smartphones are best used for increasing consumption moments, which are far more frequent. For example, while a hand-held device can be used to induce the purchase of fitness equipment, if it is also used to motivate the buyer to use the same on a regular basis, the persuasion process would be more comprehensive and useful. In many market categories, there is scope for inducing e-consumption by creating more consumption moments. But the type of stimuli that we deploy to evoke the desired behaviour has to be different from what was designed to get a purchase decision.

No doubt, it is time to give a quiet burial to the fabled 30-second commercial that has dutifully served marketers around the world for decades. This is also an opportune time to embark on the exciting journey of developing a good alternative.

Biju Dominic is the chief evangelist, Fractal Analytics and chairman, FinalMile Consulting

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Updated: 20 Apr 2022, 10:10 PM IST
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