After shrinking to as short as 15 seconds, TV ads seem to be moving in the other direction.
In recent weeks, TV viewers have been served an array of commercials lasting several minutes, counter to the conventional wisdom that slack-jawed couch potatoes generally can't focus their attention on a video promotion longer than 30 seconds. Super Bowl viewers seemed thrilled by Chrysler's two-minute spot starring Clint Eastwood, while viewers of CBS's Grammys telecast saw an ad from Chipotle that went two minutes and 15 seconds.
Now the extra-long commercials appear to be moving from special events to regular prime time. Gap Inc.'s Old Navy has prepared a two-minute spot done up infomercial style that is slated to appear on "Talk Soup" and "Chelsea Lately" on NBC Universal's E!. And Cartier, which spends most of its ad money on magazines, newspapers and outdoor promotions, ran a whopping three-and-one-half minute ad on CBS, ABC and NBC at about the same time this past Sunday evening -- an old-school maneuver known as a "roadblock" and more popular when those three TV networks were by and large the only show in town.
Cartier's commercial -- about a big cat who seemingly journeys through time and across the globe, encountering Cartier trinkets thrown in for good measure -- ran sometime between 9 p.m. and 9:15 p.m. during CBS's "The Good Wife" (in the first ad break of the hour), NBC's "Celebrity Apprentice," and ABC's "Desperate Housewives." Despite its esoteric subject matter, however, the cinematic spot stopped some ad executives in their tracks.
Case in point? Tom Julian, a retail and fashion marketing consultant who runs his own Tom Julian Group, was attempting to get through "Good Wife" on his DVR before traveling the next morning. While initially deciding to skip past the ads, he came upon Cartier's cat -- and realized the commercial went on and on. " 'What's this panther?' " Mr. Julian said he asked himself, reaching for the rewind button. " 'Let me go back and watch it again.' I was mesmerized, entertained and intrigued," Mr. Julian said.
The ad was crafted by Publicis Groupe 's Marcel agency in France, while the company's Optimedia ad-buying unit scheduled the time with the three U.S. networks.
Cartier is a relatively small TV advertiser in the U.S. The customer base for watches and jewelry is , no doubt, not as big as that for Subway sandwiches or Tide detergent. The French jeweler spent nothing on U.S. TV advertising in 2010 and 2011, according to Kantar. What's more, the company spent just $38.4 million on overall U.S. media in 2011, Kantar said. In contrast, Procter & Gamble spent about $2.1 billion in the first nine months of last year.
The total cost of the ad time? A 30-second spot on "Good Wife" this year costs an average of $137,457, according to Ad Age 's annual survey of prime-time TV prices, while a 30-second spot on "Celebrity Apprentice" costs an average of $145,500 and a 30-second spot on "Desperate Housewives" costs an average of $149,556. Do the math and it looks as if Cartier spent around $3.03 million for the night.
We suspect Cartier paid full freight for its promotional antics. Unlike big TV advertisers such as L'Oreal and McDonald's, Cartier wouldn't have the ongoing relationship with the networks that might secure it a discount; it may even have been subject to some sort of premium. After all, a three-minute spot means fewer ads can run overall during the programs in question. Some advertisers may even have balked at appearing, realizing that a three-minute-plus ad would most likely be more memorable than the 30-second variety appearing later in the program. Cartier did not make a spokesperson available to comment.
Here's the fence keeping extra-long TV ads in a metaphorical pen, at least for now. TV networks will have to work harder if more sponsors demand minutes-long commercials. Why would Ford want to run its traditional advertising in a program that contains a stylish multiminute spot from Chrysler or Toyota?
At the same time, the revenue from small advertisers looking for a big TV spotlight may be irresistible to the TV ad-sales departments. Imagine, if you will, having the leverage to charge a client full price and not have to haggle over the request. Imagine running ads from niche marketers -- jewelers -- and not having to worry about backlash from rivals that also purchase your advertising. These ads could be a TV network's dream, so long as the circumstances are right. With consumer attention so fractured, the extra-long ads can help a particular marketer stand out even to DVR viewers.
What that means: Viewers may not be exactly inundated with TV spots that seem to be more like mini-documentaries, but it seems clear that they will be served longer ads from a shorter stack.
Tuning In is an ongoing series of commentaries by Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg on the TV schedule, the ads it carries and changes within the industry. Follow him on Twitter.