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Report On Business Google showcases how shorter is sometimes better in digital advertising

This six-second reinterpretation of the H.G. Wells classic novel by ad agency Rethink Toronto is one of almost 20 similar videos showcased by Google Inc. at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Tex., this week.

Google and Rethink

Home from a long journey, a man in a torn shirt walks through his front door, wearily tosses aside his orange life vest, opens his laptop, and searches for The Island of Dr. Moreau. He leaves a review: one star.

This six-second reinterpretation of the H.G. Wells classic novel by ad agency Rethink Toronto, is one of almost 20 similar videos showcased by Google Inc. at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Tex., this week. All of the videos were made by advertising agencies, in response to a challenge to tell stories in an extremely restricted time frame.

The creative exercise signals a change in advertising, not just on Google's YouTube video-sharing service, but also in digital media more broadly.

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The rise in the use of ad-blockers, in general, has signalled to the industry that many people feel advertisers have gone too far – overloading content with ads that are disruptive and slow Web page load times, among other issues.

Where digital video is concerned, ads raise the ire of Web users by forcing them to sit through long prerolls, even when the video they are trying to watch is relatively short.

Google monitors user behaviour and has found that people will often close YouTube altogether rather than wait for an ad to finish. YouTube offers skippable ads before its videos that do not charge the advertiser if viewers don't watch the whole thing; but it also continues to sell preroll ads that can't be skipped. Responding to viewer habits, however, it has introduced six-second ad formats, and will phase out 30-second video ads that can't be skipped – a global change that will happen in Canada by the end of this year. The longest ad people will be forced to watch is 15 seconds.

"People will just navigate away as opposed to waiting 30 seconds to watch the sports highlight or whatever," said Adam Green, who works on outreach to advertising agencies at Google Canada. "There were trends on that, especially on mobile [devices], that made us think this isn't a great format."

The SXSW experiment was meant to promote the shorter format to agencies and advertisers, by showing how a story can be captured in a constrained time frame.

"You really have to cut all the fat off the idea to fit it into six seconds," said Corey Way, a designer at ad agency Cossette in Toronto and part of the team that created a stop-motion video called "Didn't Mean No Harm." It showed a page ripped from a book, which is folded into the shape of a mouse that crawls around until a hand comes into the frame and crushes it.

This kind of brevity can be important in gaining viewers' permission to advertise to them, particularly online where viewing habits differ greatly from TV.

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"A 30-second commercial is interruption-advertising, during a television show. … A 30-second preroll for a three-minute video is not proportional. This feels more respectful," said Dré Labre, partner and creative director at Rethink. "It forces us, advertisers, to stick to a single message and to be more direct with what we're saying."

For Google, of course, it is also a move to generate even more advertising revenue: on YouTube, there are certain shorter-form videos that simply couldn't accommodate ads, Mr. Green said, because many viewers will not watch 30 or even 15 seconds of advertising to get to a 49-second video of a puppy running through snow or a 27-second video of Blue Jays centre-fielder Kevin Pillar flying through the air to make a stunning catch, for example.

But the change has implications beyond Google. It's an oversimplification to equate digital media with dwindling attention spans: after all, when advertisers tell attention-grabbing stories they can rack up millions of views by tapping into concerns about girls' self confidence or pride in Canada's diversity – as Always and Molson Canadian, respectively, have done.

Still, technology has enabled consumers to press upon the industry their irritation with bad advertising that intrudes on their leisure time. Particularly now that people are spending so much time on mobile devices, being concise can be crucial.

"It would make sense that other online video platforms might follow on this," Mr. Labre said. "The viewer is going to expect this to become standard."

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