Six-Second Ads Rise Up With ‘Walking Dead,’ Fox And The NFL Leading The Way

The Walking Dead

As viewers grow frustrated with the TV advertising experience and vote with their remotes, networks are responding with shorter ad breaks and digital tricks aimed at making brand messages palatable in an ad-averse world. But their latest experiment gets straight to the pitch: 6-second commercials. (See videos below.)

Quick-hit spots for brands like Michelin tires and T-Mobile wireless service have been running on Fox’s NFL broadcasts and this month the mini-ads will debut in the eighth season of AMC’s juggernaut The Walking Dead. Today, the network confirmed that Microsoft has bought 6-second positions plugging Xbox at the top of the hour for the Oct. 29 and Nov. 5 episodes, part of a broader sponsorship.

“Clients are looking for innovation and disruption and six-second spots are an example of that,” says Ben Price, president of national ad sales for Discovery, which is testing the format but has made no official commitments. “Consumers are getting more used to digesting snackable content based on their viewing habits so advertisers are beginning to test how can they convey a message in a shorter time.”

While their long-term viability is unclear, “sixes” have already proven worthy of a closer look, according to TV ad vets. It’s not a perfect solution, of course. Spots sometimes repeat or hit on the same theme within a single pod, prompting some network execs to worry about giving viewers too many storylines to focus on. When Amazon was rolling out its Echo Dot voice-recognition device, for example, it strung together short, stand-alone vignettes rather than using the full real estate of a 30- or 60-second spot.

Revenue in some cases is keeping pace, even if the running time is shorter. Fox, which has led the way on incorporating the short units, says the rates it charges for 6 seconds of ad time have been equivalent to rates for a 15-second spot. Maintaining that rate card “is obviously really vital to the business model,” says Bruce Lefkowitz, exec VP of ad sales at Fox. “Everybody is looking at how we improve the viewer experience. I think we’ve been a little bolder than most.”

Fox announced its plans for the initiative last June at the Cannes Lions ad-palooza held annually in the South of France. As a backdrop, it chose YouTube’s pavilion on the beach because the notion of shorter ads is that they emulate the digital experience. YouTube began actively selling its own 6-second pre-roll spots last year. The digital DNA of sixes was also on display back in 2013, when Dunkin’ Donuts adapted a short video made for Twitter’s now-defunct Vine platform for a spot on ESPN’s Monday Night Football.

Lefkowitz was quick to say the shorter units alone are not going to revitalize the traditional TV ad business. The $75 billion institution has come under historic attack by deep pocketed digital rival media, along with generational TV disruptions like time-shifting and wider adoption of ad-free streaming VOD services. “It’s not the future of television, but we’re finding there’s a place for sixes,” Lefkowitz said.

After a summertime test on the Teen Choice Awards, Fox began incorporating them into NFL broadcasts in September, generally by slicing up traditional 30-second pods into four sixes and promo buffer. Brand lift on NFL games “was significantly higher than the same 30-second ad in an NFL environment,” Lefkowitz said. “Recall for 6-second ad was 70% greater than the same advertisers’ own NFL norm and 25% higher than prime-time norms.”

AMC’s approach is a bit different. Starting with the upcoming season’s second episode on Oct. 29, it is making just one 6-second spot available in a “highly coveted” part of each broadcast of The Walking Dead, which will be priced at the highest CPM of the entire show (last year a 30-second spot was fetching in the upper six figures). The spots will run between the recap of the previous episode and the start of the new episode. “We believe these are the most powerful six seconds in regularly scheduled television, in terms of audience delivery and engagement,” said a company rep.

Based on results from the initial episodes, AMC says it is considering adding a second 6-second spot in a similarly “isolated” part of the show. While it has declined from its sky-high peak, the show is still a ratings beast, last season averaging 11.4 million viewers and a 5.4 rating among viewers 18-to-49.

Not every brand or category can lend itself to the compressed timeframes, which are more common in Europe and other international territories. A T-Mobile message like “Free Netflix – no fees for life” is easier than running down a car’s many features, Lefkowitz said. Discovery’s Price says categories with the most heat include packaged goods, beverage, food, casual dining and travel.

Sean Muller, CEO of ad tracking firm iSpot, believes it is premature to consider 6-second ads a winner. “In digital, shorter is clearly better,” he says. “TV is a different environment and the jury is still out.”

Over the short term, he adds, they provide a way for networks to conduct valuable testing about the ad experience since with just a handful of seconds a premium is placed on the creative, placement and other fundamentals that have become routine.

The creative community has already been thinking shorter. Because commercial producers are already shooting spots for online as well as linear TV, many of them are focusing on 6-second material.

Craig Teper, a documentary filmmaker and commercial director, has done 15-second spots for advertisers like Dollar Shave Club, Panera Bread and Jiffy Lube. “Increasingly, I’ve been bidding on sixes,” he said. “There seems to be growing demand.” Six-second versions of longer spots are also commonly requested by advertisers.

Comedy tends to fare the best in such a compressed space, especially given the wandering attention of most TV viewers, who tend to be scanning social media and looking at other entertainment options when ads play. “A 30-second ad can contain traditional three-act structure, but 6-second one is like a one-liner,” Teper said. But that can be a good thing. “Vine videos showed us that the time limit didn’t limit the imagination.”

Data from iSpot, which measures every second of programming and advertising that airs on dozens of networks, indicates that the number of messages, not the duration of them, determines overall viewer attention. “There is a limit to the amount of messages viewers will attempt to digest,” Muller says. Even so, he added, “The networks are smart to test it. It’s possible that viewers can be conditioned to accept 6-second ads but not in pods of any decent length.”

For Lefkowitz, the time has come for the industry to at least try. “The current ad model has challenges,” he said. “So how can we improve the viewer experience while adding value to our advertisers? In our business, you can’t be afraid to experiment and learn quickly.”

Here are a couple of examples of 6-second ads, one from linear TV and one from YouTube:

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