Remember Master Lock's one-second, blink-and-you'll-miss-it Super Bowl ad of 1998? In 2012, you'll be able to leave the couch, grab a beer from the fridge and make it back in time to catch the end of several of the game's spots. (Not that you would, of course.)
After years of grinding out TV commercials that are increasingly brutish and short, advertisers seem to be going long. That trend is most evident in the Super Bowl broadcast to air Feb. 5 on NBC, where sports ad-sales chief Seth Winter expects more ads that are longer than 30 seconds.
"You're going to see the art form of storytelling take on a greater role in the Super Bowl," Mr. Winter said.
Volkswagen and Audi are among the advertisers ponying up for 60-second spots.
PepsiCo is considering a 45-second ad for its PepsiMax beverage, according to Joe Pytka, the veteran Super Bowl advertising director who is working on the spot. A Pepsi spokeswoman said the company has not finalized its Super Bowl plans.
Scott Keough, Audi of America's chief marketing officer, believes a longer ad gives consumers room for discussion beyond just product and price, and offers them better reasons to buy in an uncertain economic climate.
"People want to purchase things that have substance, that represent them and aren't viewed as trivial," Mr. Keough said.
But longer ads are the product of a broader creative movement -- the return to storytelling. There are nascent signs that some advertisers are embracing longer commercials all year.
According to ad-tracking firm Kantar Media, there was an increase in the number of 60-second TV spots and a decline in 30-second commercials in November 2011 compared with the same month a year earlier.
And many of the best TV ads of 2011, as ranked by Creativity , relied on an emotionally engaging storyline -- such as Volkswagen's popular "Mini Darth Vader" Super Bowl spot -- to make their point.
Whether this strategy of longer ads is being embraced en masse is not yet clear. Fewer 60-second spots hit the air between the fourth quarter of 2010 and the third quarter of 2011 than did in the same time period in 2006 and 2007, according to Nielsen. At one major cable network, ad-sales executives say 60-second ads are popular among movie studios and iconoclast marketers such as Nike but aren't gaining more traction with other advertisers.
Even so, there's a growing sense among marketers that consumers, bombarded by so many short-form web banners and mobile pop-ups, would welcome a return to the days when TV ads told stories and featured characters and concepts that pulled at the heartstrings and got the blood racing. "Humans prefer storytelling to just telling," said David Lubars, chairman and chief creative officer of Omnicom's BBDO North America.
In short, the longer ads might just be harder to forget. "There are many 30-second commercials that have been effective," said Mr. Pytka, who has helped create iconic Super Bowl ads for Pepsi , Nike and the company now known as Anheuser-Busch InBev. "I just don't remember any."
And marketers may simply have a case of "get me one of those" after Chrysler's much-talked-about two-minute spot in last year's big game. Playing in this field, however, isn't cheap. Super Bowl ads run between $3 million and $4 million -- and that 's for just 30 seconds. The longer the spot, the higher its cost.
Technology is also likely playing its part. Social media means ads can be streamed countless times outside of their TV airings. That's prompted more advertisers to think of their commercials as content, complete with characters, small details and an emphasis on story. If an ad gets people talking, posting and tweeting, so much the better.
"With commercial avoidance easier than ever, making what is traditionally a simple commercial message into an actual piece of content that the viewer leans forward and chooses to view is the best way to get your products noticed," said Dave Campanelli, senior VP-director of national TV at independent shop Horizon Media.
Another reason to perhaps ditch the typical bumper crop of raunchy humor, "Jackass"-worthy hijinks or D-list celebrities that grow in every Super Bowl? In the past three years, the audience for the event has swelled. Last year Fox's telecast was the most-watched TV program ever, reaching about 111 million viewers, according to Nielsen.
"I like a good joke as much as the next person, but that just doesn't seem worthy of an audience of 111 million," said Matt MacDonald, executive creative director at WPP's JWT, New York. "If you're going to speak to 111 million people, do you really want to tell a fart joke?"