Killing Off 30-second Spot Is Bad Medicine for OTC Drug Industry

Data Shows Category Most in Favor of Ditching 30s for 15s Also Saw Highest Incursion of Private-Label

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Credit: Source: Competitrack, Ameritest

NEW YORK ( -- We've all heard it: The 30-second spot is dying, with penny-pinching procurement practices driving the final nail in its coffin. But some interesting new data on the over-the-counter drug category -- the biggest adopter of the 15-second spot over the longer version -- might just argue for its revival.

As over-the-counter marketers bumped up the share of their TV commercials from 25% 15s in 2007 to 63% last year and 65% so far this year, their market share has eroded to private label faster than those of other package-goods categories. And it may be no coincidence. Copy-testing firm Ameritest has found a marked decrease in ad effectiveness for 15's vs. 30's, particularly for OTC brands, which appear to have handled the edits more poorly than other marketers, even as they used 15s much more often.

The ratio of 15s to 30s has been ris-ing fairly quickly for all marketers since 2007, concurrent not just with an increase of digital media or DVRs but, more importantly, the onset of the Great Recession, as marketers looked to squeeze more efficiency out of their media budgets. The shorter form now accounts broadly for anywhere from a quarter to 35% of conventional TV ads, up from 20% to 26% three years ago, with the higher ratio among national ads as opposed to all ads, according to ad-tracking firms Competitrack and Ameritest.

In the OTC medication and quick-service-restaurant industries, 15s now make up the vast majority of TV ads after being as little as a quarter of ads in 2007, they found. Others, such as faster-growing technology and telecommunications marketers, largely have shunned 15s.

The OTC drug industry, which appears to lead all others with 65% of its ads this year appearing as 15s, has also been a hotbed of marketing procurement, making up a substantial plurality of marketing procurement professionals listed on LinkedIn or attending marketing procurement conferences.

While it may be a prescription for cost cutting, the shift to 15s is having nasty side effects. All-outlet private-label unit and sales volume for health-care products rose 1.4 and 1.9 share points in 2009 to 27.9% and 36.1% respectively, according to Symphony IRI. That's well ahead of the 0.2- and 0.9-point gains for private label in all consumer package goods.

It was the second straight year health-care private-label led all categories in share erosion to private label, and the trend has accelerated in 2010, though largely because of a series of product recalls and a plant shutdown by Johnson & Johnson making branded products unavailable.

Across all ad categories studied by Ameritest, the average number of people paying attention to ads fell from 44% with 30's to 38% with 15s. For 37 over-the-counter ads in the study, with 4,000 consumer panelists, the drop-off was more than twice as steep proportionately, from an already-lower 36% level for 30's to 25% for 15s.

"The companies that live and die by their advertising are stretching their budgets with 15s, and frankly there's a lot for them to learn," said Ameritest CEO Charles Young. "It's an awfully short form for creatives to work with. If it devolves into simply reminder advertising, you're not building brands. You need to bring emotion and news value to those brands."

Not all OTC marketers are fans of 15s either.

"People are making decisions on going from 30s to 15s recently, I think, purely driven by cost vs. is that absolutely the right thing?" said Lakish Hatalkar, head of integrated marketing communications, package design and innovation for Novartis, who noted that he was discussing the OTC and advertisers broadly, not Novartis specifically.

But the 15-second ad also has some fans in research. Australian researchers Kate Newstead and Jenni Romaniuk last year found in a study of ads from Australia, the U.K. and U.S. that likeability scores for 15-second ads were about 20% lower than for 30-second ads, but branding scores were similar. Given the 20% to 40% price advantage for 15s, they argued in a paper published earlier this year in the Journal of Advertising Research that campaigns made up entirely of 15s may be more effective.

But the other question is the broader impact on all TV advertising from the increased clutter. "Clutter pulls down effectiveness for everyone," said media consultant Erwin Ephron, even if some individual advertisers benefit from shifting money to 15s.

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