How the internet has changed TV commercials

Back when television first hit the scene in the early ’50s, commercials were usually more like boring product demonstrations of the latest appliances. They were also typically much longer than we’re used to today—some as long as two minutes or more.

Many of those early ads also employed a musical jingle designed to get the brand name or tagline stuck in your head. Who can forget ads like “Slinky” or Burger King’s “Have It Your Way”?

Ads did eventually drop down in length to about 1 minute, and by the ’70s, the 30-second ad became the norm. Jingles were eventually retired in favor of an emphasis on humor, like the classic “Hai Karate” cologne ads and Alka Seltzer’s “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.”

But today, the word “television” has become nearly as outdated as the word “ice box” since many are saying goodbye to their cable TV and satellite television providers in favor of on-demand streaming services like Amazon, Hulu and Netflix. They might be watching shows on a large screen in their living room, but they may just as likely be watching on the small screen on their phone or tablet as they sit on a train or in a waiting room.

Because technology has shifted, and viewing habits have evolved, it’s getting harder and harder to create ads that people will actually watch and equally hard to place those ads where viewers might actually be looking.

According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, the number of smartphones connected to video programing will hit 3.85 billion devices by 2019.

That’s an incredible opportunity. But it also makes creating video ads, and placing them, more challenging than ever before.

In the old days, there were only three major TV networks. You filmed your commercial and ran spots on all three networks based on your demographics—and your budget.

When cable television surged forward in the ’90s and disrupted the market, it was nothing the traditional networks couldn’t handle.

But today, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and other online streaming services are growing exponentially and have displaced both the cable and traditional TV networks.

Netflix had three of the four most-viewed shows in 2016, including the number one show, “Orange Is the New Black,” and Netflix’s CEO even went so far as to declare that all television will be on the internet in 10 to 20 years.

All of this has made it harder for advertisers to reach an audience on TV. As Barry Diller, founder of Fox Broadcasting recently pointed out, a time is coming very soon when the only audience watching traditional TV will be people who can’t afford to pay for Netflix and Hulu, and that means if your ads are running on network television, “…you’re going to be advertising to people who can’t afford your goods.”

Now, billions of devices view billions more videos and movies and shows than anyone can possibly wrap their brain around. What’s more, attention spans have dropped so low that the average human being has less of an ability to focus on something without being distracted than the average goldfish.

To compensate, many video content providers, like YouTube, are phasing out their longer 30-second ads and only offering unskippable 20-second or 6-second bumper ads. Why? Because those shorter ads are “formats that work well for both users and advertisers.”

The reason for this shift isn’t just shorter attention spans. It’s where the traffic comes from. According to YouTube, more than 50% of users are on mobile devices.

So those “long” 30-second TV ads we grew up on years ago are now simply too long for most viewers to sit through without glancing off at squirrels in the trees or being distracted by shiny objects.

Nevertheless, those 6-second “bumper ads” or “snackable videos” seem to be what customers are responding to, according to Zach Lupei at Google who said, “In early tests, [those ads] drove strong lift in upper funnel metrics like recall, awareness and consideration—complementing [the longer, skippable ads] in driving middle and lower funnel metrics like favorability and purchase intent.”

So, perhaps gone forever are the “feature length” 30-second television commercials we grew up watching. Now the idea of “watching television” itself has been replaced by consuming digital content on a variety of devices, and commercials have morphed into tiny compressed fever dreams that have just 6 seconds to burn an indelible image onto your brain.

What do you think about these trends? Are shorter ads really better? Let us know in the comments below.