2012 Super Bowl advertisers unveil a brand new, 40-year-old game plan

Running out the clock?

Advertisers are going all-out with a startlingly innovative new game plan this year. They’re going long. With their commercials, that is.

Volkswagen will be airing a 60-second spot. So will their sister brand, Audi. Hyundai’s running a :60 just before the kickoff, on the assumption that that’s when they’ll have more of viewers’ undivided attention. (Of course, the fact that they’ll be paying only $200,000 to $4 million just before the game instead of around $6+ million during it may have had something to do with it.)

And a 45-second PepsiMax commercial is rumored to be in production.

Isolated phenomenon or trend?

Kantar Media, which tracks television ad buys, notes that November, 2011 — the most recent month for which they’ve compiled statistics — saw an increase in 60-second commercial buys and a corresponding decrease in :30s.

But Super Bowl ad plans and buys are made months before then. So what gives? Why are advertisers coughing up twice as much as the $3.5-million-per-30-seconds rate? To say nothing of hundreds of thousands more in production costs? Especially since, the mini-trend that Kantar’s statistics imply notwithstanding, :60s will have limited usefulness the rest of the year.

Suddenly, it’s 1972

The last time :60s dominated the airwaves was in the early 1970s, and that was for dollar-and-cents reasons, not for effectiveness.

Research from the time showed that consumers could absorb an average of 2.5 ideas from a 60-second commercial, 1.25 from a :30. That hasn’t changed over the past 40 years. But the television rate structure has.

Through the early ’70s, advertiser paid a premium for buying :30s. Air time for 30-second spot was 50% of the length of a :60, but cost 75% as much to buy. Then, the rate structure changed, that 25% premium went away, and :30s started to dominate the airwaves. Until, possibly, the near future.

The story:

According to Seth Winter, NBC’s executive in charge of sports advertising sales, the 60-second buys let advertisers make “the art form of storytelling take on a greater role in the Super Bowl.”

Others in the industry seem to be adopting the same party line.

“Humans prefer storytelling to just telling,” says Dave Lubars, chairman and chief creative officer of BBDO North America.

Jim Haygood, who edited last year’s 30-second “Darth Vader” Volkswagen Super Bowl spot, told Advertising Age that they also produced a :60 version, and that “everyone was in love with the 60, so we struggled to get the 30…[W]e all feel that the 30 didn’t quite capture the full feeling of the 60.”

Scott Keogh, Audi of America’s chief marketing officer, believes that people need more substance to choose high-ticket products like cars, that “aren’t viewed as trivial.”

But that’s just the excuse. Do you really need all of 60 seconds to tell consumers that Volkswagens have remote starting?

The Reason:

It’s yet another case of a disease that advertising asgencies are particularly susceptible to — the Bright Shiny Object Syndrome.

The Bright Shiny Object in question was last year’s two-minute (120-second) commercial in which Eminem told 111 million American viewers that they should buy Chrysler cars because they came from the bankrupt, dysfunctional, imploding city of Detroit. (I don’t know about storytelling, but that’s some story. And I’m sure Scott Keogh was impressed with all the substance.)

It’s not the length, but how you use it

There’s no immediate danger that local Richmond television advertisers are going to start buying minutes, so we’re all safe from twice as much exposure to Joel Bieber and his fellow personal injury lawyers at one sitting. But the key to effective television commercials is not length, but balance.

On the one hand, your commercials need to have entertainment value. You’re asking consumers to give you a small piece of their lives, so you need to make it worth their while.

On the other hand, that enterntainment value needs to be related to the one most important thing your product will do for your audience.

Too much product, and you’ll have your them running for a beer in the fridge. Too much entertainment, and you’ll be using a kid in a Darth Vader costume to tell consumers they should buy a $16,645 car for the sole reason that it has remote starting.