There is barely time to set the scene, before it's already over: a cartoon animal wearing Joe Fresh fashions stands beside a telescope, or bites into a muffin at a picnic. Then, the retailer's brand flashes on the screen and invites viewers online to see more. These commercials, which ran during the back-to-school season, were one-fifth the length of a typical TV ad, and they represent TV's experiment with a format that has already taken hold online: six-second ads.
The campaign, which ran on channels such as YTV, the Disney Channel and the Cartoon Network, was Corus Entertainment Inc.'s first foray into the format.
As people have become more accustomed to skipping through commercials on TV and watching shorter-form content online, advertisers and the media companies that sell ads have been trying to cope by offering ads more palatable to viewers' attention spans.
Experimentation on TV is happening in the United States as well: After airing a six-second ad during the Teen Choice 2017 awards in August, Fox Networks Group announced it would start selling the format during sports broadcasts, including National Football League and Major League Baseball games. In October, AMC said it would sell six-second ads to air during its hit show The Walking Dead this season. Microsoft Corp. has bought in to advertise its Xbox gaming system.
It is not as though shorter ads have never been tried before: Known as "billboards," five- and 10-second spots have aired for years, often to announce program sponsorships. But as one of the biggest names in digital advertising – Google Inc. – has begun aggressively pitching six-second video ads, the appetite for experimentation has grown. As of June, Canada had the highest adoption rate for six-second ads on YouTube of any market worldwide, according to Google.
The demand is there: Google says one in three of its large advertisers globally are now buying six-second spots. The need for shorter-form advertising has in some ways been shaped by people's changing media habits.
"People consume content faster on their phones and marketers are increasingly recognizing that this behaviour is different than on other media," Facebook Inc. chief operations officer Sheryl Sandberg said on a conference call to discuss the company's earnings in July. "This means that developing short-form 'snackable' content is a big opportunity on mobile."
Tropicana recently tested six-second ads alongside 15-second and 30-second versions on Facebook, Ms. Sandberg said. They found higher "brand awareness" among those who had seen the shorter ads.
Google also says that 61 per cent of the six-second campaigns it has measured globally resulted in a "significant" lift in brand awareness. Ads can run in a sequence, telling a larger story in more digestible chunks.
Since advertisers are now producing shorter ads for digital formats anyway, they may be more inclined to test the spots they've already created in other media, such as TV. Corus believes that as advertisers continue to tailor ads for digital formats, the demand for shorter slots on television will increase.
Rogers Media has been working to create new, shorter ad formats, including what it calls "fade to black," a series of three-second spots that run at the beginning and the end of ad breaks. WestJet aired a series of these in April during 24: Legacy on City to complement a 30-second ad promoting its WestJet Plus fare.
"We currently are not airing any six-second ads, but are open to the conversation," said Janice Smith, vice president of national media sales for Rogers Media.
Bell Media has offered five-second "billboards" on its channels for years to promote sponsorships, and has also experimented with 10-second ads in the past. It has not yet seen a surge in demand for six-second spots more specifically, but would consider selling the format if that changes.
"We are always open to creative ad executions and spot lengths if it is part of an advertiser's strategy," Bell Media spokesperson Scott Henderson said.
Media-buying and planning firm Media Experts has seen a "huge" expansion in advertisers' demand for different ad formats – including shorter ads as well as "bugs" that pop up in the lower part of the screen during the show itself, giving advertisers exposure outside of the commercial break.
"It's an innovative way to capture people's attention, and they're seen as PVR-proof," said Jennifer Bidwell, managing director of television systems at Media Experts. However, she added that shorter spots are much more effective when they are part of a larger campaign that includes longer ads. For now, broadcasters are not likely to sell isolated six-second increments; the shorter ads will be one part of larger campaign buys. That was the case for Loblaw Cos. Ltd. in its Joe Fresh ad buy with Corus.
"As a family-focused fashion brand, Joe Fresh is always seeking innovative ways to reach our customers," said Lindsay Cook, vice-president of marketing and communications for Joe Fresh. "We've used a shorter video format successfully in both the social and digital channels in the past."
In talks with the retailer, Corus shared research that when shorter ads are part of a campaign with longer spots, they boost people's ability to recall the ads. Loblaw is open to further testing of the shorter-format ads, and will be doing another series of six-second spots with Corus leading up to this holiday season.
"It's an area we'll continue to explore and evaluate," Corus spokesperson Dervla Kelly said. "There is a great deal of interest from our advertisers in being innovative and trying new things, and we're working with them on a number of new initiatives to continue to address the changing landscape."