The battle to make TV ads more effective used to be a slow-moving one. Winnowing the 60-second ad to 30 seconds, then 15, took decades rather than years. Now, with viewers scattering to new methods of getting video, the pace of change is rapid fire.
TV networks once had little incentive to allow new ideas into the commercial break. Letting one advertiser buy an entire ad break or buy up an inordinate amount of the first spots in a commercial "pod" meant giving it an advantage over others, making the slotting of ads across the schedule infinitely more complex. The best an advertiser used to be able to hope for was a "roadblock," or running the same ad across many networks at about the same time.
The emergence of ad-skipping DVRs and commercial ratings has made ad-break experimentation more necessary, and the recent roiling economy left TV networks with less ability to push back against the increasingly intrusive methods their ad clients favored. Not only have advertisers secured hard-to-miss product placements, but they are also gaining the ability to run ads that are extra-short and extra-long; tailored for a specific time or TV show; or that dominate an entire program.
Below, Ad Age examines some of the more innovative -- and, in some cases, more foolhardy -- ideas that have turned up over time.
THE FIVE-SECOND PITCH
WHAT: In 2005, AOL, then owned by Time Warner, convinced Fox to run five-second "pod-puncher" ads at the end of commercial breaks. The idea was that viewers fast-forwarding with DVRs who resumed watching normally as their TV show returned would "bounce" back a few seconds and have to watch the spot. To get the ad, which ran in a "premium position," AOL had to agree to buy another 30- or 60-second ad in the same break.
DID IT CATCH ON? AOL and its media-buying firm, Initiative, were turned down by several networks before Fox agreed. These days, as more viewers opt to use DVRs, more TV outlets have embraced the idea of reworking the structure of commercial breaks.
WAIT! THERE'S MORE!
WHAT: NBC sells a spot in 2009 Super Bowl to direct-response advertiser Cash4Gold.com, making the marketer the first such sponsor to appear in the big game. Ed McMahon and MC Hammer star in the commercial, which attempts to get recession-addled consumers to consider the idea of parting with gold to reap much-needed wampum.
DID IT CATCH ON? Ad sales executives at rival networks suggest they prefer to limit the Super Bowl to A-list advertisers, and try to refrain from giving air time to direct-response pitches or charges messages from advocacy organizations. Cash4Gold has not returned to the Super Bowl since 2009.
WHAT: Toyota and NBC strike deal in 2006 that requires the network to prove its viewers are able to remember specific details about its TV shows in an effort to help Toyota understand how "engaged" viewers are in programs in which it advertises.
DID IT CATCH ON? Unveiled more than a year before the official adoption of so-called commercial ratings , the pact showed marketers were no longer willing to subsist on standard Nielsen measures of mass audience. Instead, they would increasingly be demanding more granular detail.
TO BOLDLY GO WHERE NO AD HAS GONE BEFORE ...
WHAT: In 2009, ABC allows Paramount Pictures to show the U.S.S. Enterprise making a beeline out of the "O" on its treasured drama "Lost." The Walt Disney network had a reputation at the time for not allowing such obvious product placement.
DID IT CATCH ON? Well, it opened doors. With the recession putting the hurt on network ad revenue, many of them decided to tear up old rulebooks and allow advertisers to run willy-nilly over some of their most prized properties. Once you give ground, it's hard to get it back.
WHAT: In 1998, MasterLock runs a one-second ad, using an image of a bullet hitting one of its locks (but not destroying it) taken from an old Super Bowl spot. Observers have called the technique a "blink ad" or "blipvert."
DID IT CATCH ON? This concept's time may have already run out. Just as you can say more in a traditional paragraph than you can in a haiku, it's difficult to do much with a one-second ad when you can usually get 15 or 30 ticks at your disposal. MillerCoors tried the technique for a spot ad bought during the Super Bowl in 2009.
THE FORECAST CALLS FOR ADS
WHAT: "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows," Bob Dylan once sang. But you might need one to get TV viewers to stop ignoring ads. NBC allowed Home Depot to run ads that contained local weekend weather forecasts for most viewers, a process that required the participation of local stations and the Weather Channel.
DID IT CATCH ON? Such commercials illustrate the new complexity in crafting ad campaigns that stand apart from the pack. The more ads stand apart from traditional 30-second fare, the more work has to be put into their creation in advance.
WHAT: Fueled by early paranoia in 2006 about the ad-skipping effects of DVRs, Yum Brands' KFC, General Electric and Coca-Cola's Sprite ran commercials with subliminal images in them that could only be spotted if the viewer used a DVR or VCR to halt the action. KFC kicked things off by running an offer for free food tucked into its ad. GE unveiled "one-second theater" with images tucked inside its ads, while Sprite ran "sublymonal" ads that told viewers they were "DVR-ready" and contained codes that could be used to win prizes.
DID IT CATCH ON? Marketers at the time claimed the ads got people to stop and spend more time with them, but in the end, most of this stuff was seen as a gimmick. If you want people not to zap past your ads, your best material should be in plain sight.
EMINEM'S COMMERCIAL MARATHON
WHAT: Chrysler gets rapper Eminem to appear in a whopping two-minute-long ad declaring that Detroit will rebound from its economic woes and asking viewers to consider Chrysler vehicles as "imported" from the city.
DID IT WORK? To get this spot on the air, Fox had to shuffle its Super Bowl lineup, and other networks would likely have to redistribute commercials in other ad breaks in order to make this method something that occurs more frequently.
FEWER COMMERCIALS, MORE CONTENT
WHAT: Philips Electronics pays $2 million in 2005 to be the sole sponsor of CBS's "60 Minutes," then runs fewer ads than normal in the show so the news program can run longer segments. In all, Philips runs about six-and-a-half minutes of commercials during the program, down from the usual 12.
DID THE IDEA RESONATE? Translating this to prime time can be difficult, because local stations also get to run ad time during most TV-network programs. But the Philips technique has been embraced by NBC and ABC evening-news broadcasts, who have done deals with Pfizer, among others, to get more time for news stories.
WHEN COMMERCIALS LOOK LIKE CONTENT
WHAT: To draw advertisers to its launch, the CW offers a new idea known as a "content wrap": two-minute segments (with an ad) that burnish a particular advertiser within the confines of a commercial break. The first group featured a show called "CWH" that helped viewers "C What's Hip" or "C What's Hot."
DID IT WORK? The idea of ad-break domination continues, and CW ran a recent campaign for Ford that mimics some of the wraps' execution details.