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TV commercials are shrinking along with attention spans and advertising budgets. The 15-second ad is increasingly common, supplanting the 30-second spot, which knocked off the full-minute pitch decades ago.
For viewers, it means more ads in a rapid-fire format. For advertisers, shorter commercials are a way to save money, and research shows they hold on to more eyeballs than the longer format.
"It used to be that the most valuable thing on the planet was time, and now the most valuable thing on the planet is attention," says John Greening, associate professor at Northwestern University's journalism school and a former ad agency executive.
So instead of seeing a lengthier plot line, viewers are treated to the sight of, say, the popular "Old Spice man" riding backward on a horse through various scenes for just 15 seconds.
The number of 15-second TV commercials has jumped more than 70 percent in five years to nearly 5.5 million last year, according to Nielsen. They made up 34 percent of all national ads on the air last year, up from 29 percent in 2005.
Commercial-skipping digital video recorders and distractions such as laptops and phones have shortened viewers' attention spans, says Deborah Mitchell, executive director of the Center for Brand and Product Management at the University of Wisconsin.
So companies figure: "Why spend money on anything longer anyway? Plus, if they're going to skip our ads, at least we have a better chance of them seeing something if it's really short."
Fifteen-second ads cost about the same per second as longer ones but cost half as much. A 15-second ad on network TV cost about $20,000 on average last year, according to Nielsen.
"It becomes a very seductive thing to get your message out there at half the cost," says Mike Sheldon, CEO of advertising agency Deutsch LA.
On average, about 5 percent of an audience viewing a 15-second commercial will give up on it, says Jeff Boehme, chief research officer for Kantar Media.
Previously, 15-second ads were mostly edited versions of 30-second spots, but that's changing. Advertisers are making shorter commercials as stand-alones. The length is ideal to remind people of products, stores or prices.
Shorter ads can be just as effective as longer ones. "When things are working that fast, you can't tell yourself, 'No, I'm not going to think about that,'" Mitchell says. "Your brain lights up, so you don't have a choice."