What is the Most Effective Length for a TV Commercial?
The most effective length for TV commercials has been hotly debated among advertisers for decades. In today’s changing TV landscape, the question remains as relevant as ever: how long are commercials? How long should they run in order to efficiently capture a viewer’s attention and sell your product without overstaying their welcome?
The history of TV commercial length was heavily influenced by the mass media that preceded it.
When televisions first entered the average North American home, commercials adhered to the guiding principles of radio, the dominant media source at the time. As with traditional radio ads, 60-second long TV commercials naturally evolved as the norm in the 1950s.
When media inflation hit in the 1970s the advertising industry needed to change, just as it has in the decades since. Back then, advertisers were forced to cut their spots in half to an abbreviated 30 seconds. Shortly after that, the 15-second TV commercial emerged. In the 21st century, 15 seconds became the standard TV commercial length, while online streaming platforms have enabled advertisers to experiment with a variety of commercial lengths—for example, internet video ads can range from less than 1-second, to much, much longer.
Today, most North American broadcasters in the broadcasting industry allow advertisers to choose between producing 15, 30, and 60-second commercials. While advertisers and media strategists are always experimenting in the TV commercial space to ensure that commercial lengths remain profitable according to the spend necessary to produce and broadcast them, network TV still adheres to the mould of traditional time blocks.
Yet, with the decline of traditional TV viewing habits and the rise of on-demand viewing, as well as considerably more media options fighting for a consumer’s attention, what is the most effective length for a TV commercial?
What makes for a good TV commercial length?
The best TV commercial length really depends on the message you’re trying to convey to your audience. In some cases, more concise ads are exactly what you need to hook your viewers and convince them of your value proposition from the outset. On the other hand, some commercials need a slow-burning, established plot to do the trick. No matter the length, the important part is that you take just the right amount of time needed to tell your brand story—no more, no less.
Example of an effective 15-second commercial:
Pepsi’s cheeky take on their product is so clever and self-referential, it doesn’t need much of an explanation.
Example of an effective 30-second commercial:
Skittles ingeniously shows how their flavorful product brings ‘color’ to your otherwise monochrome world.
This ad is effective because it allows the story to build up a bit more than a 15-second commercial would allow. They are able to set the scene and create a storyline that the audience can follow along with.
Example of an effective 60-second commercial:
Corporate communication platform Slack showcases how their tool can help your workplace be more productive.
The 60-second format works best here since it allows the audience to follow along the journey and storylines of the characters to better sell you on the efficiency of their product. Plus, the velvety voice over at the end wraps up the adventure perfectly.
Commercial Length and Brand Recall
Another measure of successful advertising is brand 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 the book The Elements of Episodic Memory by so-called ‘grandfather of modern memory research’ Endel Tulving, the Canadian experimental psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist defines the three memory systems.
The 3 Memory Banks of the Human Mind
- Semantic: Knowledge-based memories, where we store facts, concepts and language.
- Episodic: Emotional-based memories, where we store autobiographical memories.
- 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 sonic logo, jingle, and/or tagline to each spot that represents each memory system and you’ve got the makings of an effective television commercial.
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 brand recall?
The short answer is no.
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. It’s highly possible that a 15 second commercial ends up being precisely half as effective at producing brand recall as a 30 second ad.
However, it is worth noting that some brands have opted for an approach that counters our previous argument. One year at the Super Bowl, Master Lock ran what they called “the world’s first 1-second commercial.”
The rapid-fire ad displayed a close-up of a Master Lock lock being pierced by a bullet. Media strategy consultant Gene DeWitt noted that “shorter spots are perfect for products like Master Lock ‘that already have very, very high brand recognition that don’t have to explain what they are or what they do.’”
But perhaps that doesn’t describe your brand and you’re thinking 60-seconds is more ideal. 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.
The Importance of a TV Commercial’s Broadcast Frequency
Some advertisers may opt to run shorter ads at a higher frequency. This is a practice that often backfires.
In a piece on Bizcommunity.com, Chris Brewer explains that content producers regularly focus on crafting ads that are both fun to watch and have something to say, since the “fear of consumer irritation is very, very real.” This is not a direct result of the length of a TV commercial,” Brewer writes. “In fact, some 60- and 90-second commercials are so highly entertaining and informative that consumers stop fast-forwarding in order to watch them again. On the other hand, in my house anyway, there’s a huge groan when the same commercial is shown 10 times during an evening.”
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.
That being said, the appeal of producing and airing commercials that are longer or shorter than 30 seconds is justified. “Commercials longer than 30 seconds are intended to attract attention by giving marketers more time to tell stories,” writes The New York Times. “Those shorter than 30 seconds are meant to have surprise value: they are usually over before commercial-haters can zap or zip past them.”
Average Commercial Length Takeaway Points
Although the ‘correct’ length for a TV commercial is debatable, and the notion of the ‘average TV commercial length’ is dwindling, 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.
Then, when you’re ready, hire a talented voice actor to perform the script read for your next TV commercial today!