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Will Six-Second Ads Have a Long Life, Or Come Up Short?

After years of watching people tune out standard 60- and even 30-second ads, brands and TV networks are taking the short route, experimenting with 6-second ads that barely have time to state their case before they’re done, or before viewers can tune out.

The bigger question, however, is whether this approach ultimately makes sense. It’s possible that getting shorter makes the problem worse, not better.

The inspiration for the shift to short comes from online media, where briefer is routinely better, especially when it comes to demanding even a scintilla of audience attention for the sake of mere filthy lucre.

If, the reasoning goes, people don’t want to watch most ads, making shorter messages will demand less of them while still giving the brand a chance to get seen, however briefly. After all, it seems to work online.

But TV is a different environment than online. Viewer habits are different, and for most, ingrained from years, even decades of one viewing experience.

It’s way past time for more experimentation, especially as networks (and other traditional publishers) get more sophisticated about gathering and using huge troves of customer data to efficiently reach and engage the right audiences.

Variety, in fact, just reported one such effort, dubbed “Thor,”  to provide an alternative way to get paid, based on the sales prompted by ads. It’s an admirable effort in terms of delivering for the customer, but a sticky one. They’ll be using set-top-box data to know which ads were seen, then connect that data to subsequent household purchases.

”We can get into a conversation about whether the purchaser was exposed to an ad, and we can say, ‘Yes, there was exposure to an ad on our air two weeks ago, or a week ago, and they actually made the purchase a day ago,” one anonymous exec told Variety. “We know that there’s a pattern of activity that led to that purchase.”

Separately, three networks are collaborating on a process called “Open A.P.,” designed to let advertisers buy based on specific demographic slices. Nielsen has its own, somewhat similar approach in the works.

So lots of things are getting thrown against the wall, to see what may stick. Will shorter ads pay off too?

It shouldn’t take too long to get a real read on the effectiveness of these ever-so-brief creatives, though for now, 6-second ads aren’t being shown with consistency or scale.

 But here’s the thing: attention measures show the biggest impact on tune away or interruptions is how many creatives are shown, not how long they last. That’s because we’ve trained viewers over the decades to mentally count off the ads as they decide what’s “too long” between programming.

Networks are smart to test this approach. But the reality is, for many viewers, each switch of a creative is a signal to viewers that a change is happening. Stacking up five or ten 6-second ads is just a lot of messages to metabolize in the minds of lean-back viewers grabbing some kick-back couch time.

It’s possible that viewers might actually feel like the result is  less acceptable than a few traditional longer spots. Shorter could actually seem longer. Now, wouldn’t that be ironic?