commercial length

Editor’s note: This is an update to an article originally published on June 25, 2014 by David Ciccarelli.

The best length for TV commercials has been hotly debated among advertisers for decades.

When televisions first entered the average North American home, commercials followed the same guiding principles of radio, the main media source at the time. As with radio, 60-second television commercials were the norm in the 1950s.

When media inflation hit in the 1970s, advertisers were forced to cut their spots in half to 30 seconds. Soon after that, the 15-second TV commercial emerged. Now, 15 seconds seems to have become a standard duration, or length for a TV commercial (however, online, some have even been cut down to 6-second commercials).

Most North American broadcasters now offer a selection to advertisers and they can choose to produce a 15, 30, or 60-second commercial.

But what is the most effective amount of time?

What Makes for a Good TV Commercial Length?

That depends on the messaging you are trying to get out to your audience. Sometimes shorter, more concise ads hook the viewer and convince them right away. While other times a longer, more established plot does the trick. Take a look at the examples below and see for yourself:

Example of an effective 15-second commercial:

Pepsi’s cheeky take on how their product is so good, it doesn’t need much explanation.

Example of an effective 30-second commercial:

Skittles showing how their product brings ‘color’ to your life.

This ad is effective because it allows the story to build up a bit more than a 15-second commercial allows. They are able to set the scene and create a storyline that the audience will follow.

Example of an effective 60-second commercial:

Slack messenger app – showcases how this tool can help your workplace be more productive.

The 60-second format works best here as it allows the audience to follow along the journey and storylines of the characters to better sell you on the efficiency of their product.

Commercial Length and Consumer Recall

Another measure of successful advertising is consumer recall.

Studies have shown that if the advertisement is able to engage all three memory banks in the minds of its target audience then the ad will translate better to brand awareness and the bottom line.

In his book The Elements of Episodic Memory by Endel Tulving, a Canadian experimental psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist, the so-called “grandfather of modern memory research,” defines the three memory systems.

The 3 Memory Banks of the Human Mind

  1. Semantic: Knowledge-based memories, where we store facts, concepts and language.
  2. Episodic: Emotional-based memories, where we store autobiographical memories.
  3. Procedural or Somatic: Action-based memories, where we store learned behaviors, such as how to drive a car or play a guitar, as well as the physical sensations of bodily movement and our five senses.

For advertising purposes, a good commercial uses imagery that triggers fireworks in all three memory systems. Add in a familiar logo, jingle, and/or tagline to each spot that represents each memory system and you’ve got the makings of an effective television commercial.

Why?

When recalling the television commercial later, it will:

  • Automatically be coupled with the branding imagery, making it easier to remember whatever struck us most about the commercial.
  • Most importantly, we’ll recall the company the commercial belongs to.

This applies to everyone no matter which part of the memory was triggered most or their mood at the time.

Can a Single 15-Second Commercial Create Consumer Recall?

The short answer is no.

Plus, depending on the word count of your script, the length of the commercial will affect the speed of the voice over. If it’s too fast, it may affect the listeners’ ability to recall the message.

A series of three 15-second scripts can be an effective approach if each commercial taps into each one of the memory banks, but if the reason you’re thinking about producing a 15-second spot is due to low budget concerns, then three 15-second commercials just isn’t a viable option.

So, perhaps you’re thinking 60-seconds will be ideal then. Consider it carefully.

To the average viewer, 60-second commercials feel long and drawn out. Even if, theoretically, each memory system is triggered by the commercial, the effectiveness is lost at about the 45-second mark. That’s when most people simply tune out, resulting in poor brand recall later.

30 Seconds is the Ideal Commercial Length

Studies completed by the World Advertising Research Center have shown that 30-second spots are ideal in order to effectively tap into all three components of a good brand-building television commercial. It’s enough time to make an emotional and intellectual connection with the viewer.

30 seconds is the right amount of time to make a television commercial that’s creative, memorable, and engaging enough to entice the viewer to learn more – which is to say, to conduct research online, to pick up the phone or to drive to the store and purchase the product or service.

Average Commercial Length Takeaway Points

Although the ‘right’ length of TV commercials is debatable, the key takeaway is to ensure that whatever length you choose to use for your commercials, you give yourself enough time to properly convey the message you are trying to send out to your audience. As long as you are able to engage audiences and sell them on why your product is the product for them, the length of the spot can vary depending on your budget, needs and ultimate outcome.

Learn more about commercial lengths (like the 6 second ad) and let us know about your thoughts on the length of television commercials. Share with us in the comments. 

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David graduated with honours from the Ontario Institute of Audio Recording Technology. David’s background in audio production continues to inform Voices.com’s innovation in the areas of mobile recording and digital media products that contribute to Canada’s economic and cultural future. As Chief Executive Officer, David is responsible for setting the vision, executing the growth strategy and managing the company on a day-to-day basis. He often writes about these experiences in the Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur Magazine and Forbes.

6 COMMENTS

  1. By economic necessity, national TV probably gets it right much of the time, while web advertisers often far exceed 30 seconds. And given that their stuff intrudes just as you are about to read or watch something you really want, I wonder how long people linger before hitting skip?

  2. What if the client wants the editor to make a commercial just lasting 55 seconds instead of making it a full minute?

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