Get ready for an onslaught or really lo-o-o-ong tv commercials

"Watch my two-minute commercial, fool!"

In the beginning was the 2011 two-minute Chrysler Super Bowl commercial, in which Eminem’s voice-over said you should buy Chrysler cars because they come from the imploding, dysfunctional city of Detroit.

This year, in another Chrysler Super Bowl commercial,  Clint Eastwood went on for another two minutes about how Detroit — which an Economist article characterized as flirting with financial disaster — was a model for “America at halftime.”

And now, it seems, everyone’s getting into the act.

Of course, there’s nothing new about two-minute commercials. In the middle of the night, insomniacs see direct-response pitches and infomercials all the time. But now they’re starting to invade prime-time television.

In this year’s Grammy Awards telecast, Chipotle ran a two-and-a-half minute Luddite homage to the good old days of pre-Agricultural Revolution, Malthusian subsistence farming.

Chevrolet is running a two-minute version of its “Happy Grad” :30 online.

Old Navy just released a two-minute spot for a new line of t-shirts starring Mr. T (Get it?) on E! network’s “Talk Soup” and “Chelsea Lady.” The commercial features online couponing to get one of these t-shirts for free, which begs the question: If the shirts are so great, why do you need advertising to give away — not sell, but give away for free — a few tens of thousands of them?

And Sunday evening, March 4, Cartier ran a three-and-a-half minute commercial during “The Good Wife” on CBS, ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” and NBC’s “Celebrity Apprentice.” In it, a jeweled leopard in a Cartier storefront comes to life, breaks through the glass and wanders through Russia, China, India and Paris before ending up in a box.

Monkey see, monkey do

Advertising agency folks are among the most creative, innovative, ground-breaking people in the world, and if you don’t believe that, just ask them.

But in fact, they’re among the most imitative.

Nobody falls for the Bright Shiny Object Syndrome like copywriters, art directors and the creative directors they report to. And this year’s Bright Shiny Object is the two-minute commercial.

Does this mean that 120-second commercials will become this year’s equivalent of the :30?

Fortunately, several factors militate against that.

  • Cost — Networks have no rate structure for selling more than sixty seconds’ worth of air time per commercial during most dayparts. This means that advertisers with long commercials need to buy and assemble their air time 30 seconds at a time. Chipotle had to buy five 30-second blocks. Cartier had to buy seven — and on the alphabet networks, no less. According to Advertising Age‘s annual survey of prime-time television prices, 30 seconds on “The Good Wife” average $137,457; for “Celebrity Apprentice,” that’s $145,000; and “Desperate Housewives” runs $149,556. Add them up and multiply by seven, and Cartier spent about $3.03 million for a one-shot.
  • Availability — Prime-time television shows average four network commercial pods per hour. A two-minute spot takes up around half of one pod, severely limiting available air time for other advertisers.
  • Conflict — Advertisers don’t want their spots to run next to their competitors’, and networks work hard to oblige them. Having fewer availabilities as a result of running longer commercials will make it harder for them to continue doing so.
  • Viewer backlash — It’s one thing to have Clint Eastwood talking at you for two minutes straight once a year. But how do you think viewers would react to regular, two-minute doses of Mr. Clean or Progressive Insurance’s Flo?
  • Content — Except for Old Navy, the longer commercials are remarkably free of product content. It’s one thing to watch the Cartier leopard prowling along the Great Wall of China, but what’s going to happen if someone decides to try some actual selling? (See Viewer Backlash above.)

Two solid minutes of Joel Bieber?

On the local Richmond front, two-minute prime-time commercials have even more working against them. While network commercials have four pods per hour, local ones have only two — at the hour and half-hour, when local channels break away for station identification. On Richmond’s Comcast and Verizon cable systems, some channels don’t take local commercials at all.

Moreover, two-minute commercials are costly to produce. You can’t just have two guys from the station or cable system show up with a video camera and a small light kit, grab some show-the-factory and talking-head footage and be done in an hour or two.

So chances are that at least locally, we’ll all be spared two-minute marathons from Joel Bieber and his personal-injury competitors.