By Michael J. McDermott
Talk about brain waves. Emotions, of course, are neurohormones, chains of amino acids produced mainly in the hypothalamus to carry messages throughout the brain and the rest of the body. It takes about six seconds to synthesize a human emotion, according to the neuroscientists at 6seconds.org, a nonprofit organization that promotes "emotional intelligence." Each chemical burst lasts between four to seven seconds, from the time it's produced until it's completely broken down and absorbed.
Coincidentally (or not?), that's the same amount of time brands now have to connect with prospects in a rapidly proliferating number of marketing channels. The six-second spot (often referred to as a bumper ad) is the new 30-second ad, and marketers have a lot riding on getting it right.
"Quick, attention-getting ads are definitely a challenge, for a lot of reasons," says Brian Cavallucci, national advertising manager at Subaru of America. "It's hard to capture people's attention, particularly when consumers are constantly bombarded with messages from various brands. We want to give consumers information that is helpful to them when searching for a vehicle, but in a way that makes them want to watch the ad, not have to watch [it]."
Subaru's marketing team is on the cutting edge of this format. When YouTube and Ipsos used a creative rating test to rank the best six-second spots for the 12 months through July 2019, Subaru's dog-with-a-stick ad for its Forester model topped the list. As Nick S. Rose, product manager at YouTube Ads, points out, the ad required overcoming the significant challenges all marketers face in this super-compressed time frame.
"Brands are often surprised at how much they can communicate in a brief but memorable six-second message," Rose says. "When you're working with just six seconds, there is no time to include all of the components that are usually included in a 30-second spot, such as story, product info, taglines, and branding. Marketers should keep their messaging and creative elements simple and easily digestible by focusing on a single message."
One of the biggest challenges six-second ads present for brands is how to emotionally engage with people in a very short amount of time, says Nick Woodford, global content and engagement manager at Unruly, a specialist in data-driven video ads.
"Nielsen research shows that more emotional ads deliver a 23 percent uplift in sales volume," Woodford says. "We also know from our emotional testing and targeting tool, UnrulyEQ, that emotional ad campaigns create preference, lead to decisions, and are about twice as effective as national advertising."
"Six-second spots should not be cut from longer spots … they shouldn't be an afterthought to the creative process."
— Anthony Miyazaki, professor and chair of the department of marketing and logistics at Florida International University's College of Business
Woodford says another major challenge brands face with six-second ads is being able to tell a story that makes sense to the viewer in such a short time period, while still conveying the brand message. Subaru nails that combination with its dog-with-a-stick Forester ad. To wit, the commercial makes its point of spotlighting the small SUV's extra-wide tailgate — the single-message focus that Rose emphasizes — while also telling a story and triggering an emotional response via an impossibly cute mutt hopping out of the back with a very long stick in its mouth.
Creating a bumper ad involves an incubation process that's both similar to and different from crafting a longer-form ad. Akin to longer formats, the six-second spot starts when brand mangers determine what their objectives are, identify their desired audience, assess the creative elements they have on hand or need to create, and brainstorm ideas for the spot itself, according to Rose. "Marketers should also ask themselves how their six-second ads fit into their larger media strategy," he says.
Bevan Mahaney, creative director at Grey West, adds: "The main difference is that the process is usually fast and furious with six-second ads. The budgets are typically small and the timelines tight, which can work to the agency's benefit in selling more abstract or risky ideas."
Another difference in the process is that "overthink" is quickly revealed, "especially when too many pieces of information are requested," says Matt Reinhard, chief product officer at agency O'Keefe Reinhard & Paul. "In this process, we open on the middle of the story. There's far less time to build a traditional narrative, so when we do find that one thing, that's it. That becomes the message."
Feature Focus vs. Longer Storytelling
Subaru embraces this approach in incubating its short-format spots. "We have been using quick-hit 15- and six-second ads to inform consumers about a cool feature, but also do it in an entertaining way," Cavallucci says. "So the process has been to focus on new product features, such as the large touchscreen in the all-new Outback and Legacy, and to show that being used, but also to do it in a way that entertains the viewer."
With its longer-format videos, Subaru tries to do more storytelling and show how the vehicles help people live their lives, he says, noting the "very different approaches" for the two forms of video.
When working with agency partners on short-form video, brands need to determine the one takeaway they want the ad to achieve before beginning the creative process — with the emphasis on "one." "Brands and agencies need to agree on one message or goal, otherwise the seconds get flooded with words and logos that deliver exactly no messages," Mahaney says.
Reinhard agrees. Noting marketers must create "content that is right for the platform," he says brands need to ask themselves why they want to spend money on six-second ads and what is the main takeaway. "Have we connected with our consumers in a meaningful way?" he says. "Have we reminded people of a previous message? Or have we extended the narrative to a set theme?"
Woodford, from Unruly Group, contends that the main question brands need to consider before starting the creative process for a six-second spot is whether they're going to create a bespoke ad or chop down an existing asset. "Although the six-second ad is now widely used and understood by brands, many still fall into the trap of cutting down their full-length ads without carrying out the proper research into which parts of the ad are most effective in driving the desired KPIs," he says.
Anthony Miyazaki, a professor and chair of the department of marketing and logistics at Florida International University's College of Business, advises against cutting-and-shrinking a longer spot as a means of creating an effective short-form ad. "Six-second spots should not be cut from longer spots," he says. "They should stand alone or as a partner to longer ads, but they shouldn't be an afterthought to the creative process."
Mahaney echoes the sentiment, saying that six-second ads are not as effective if they are cut-downs from other long-form spots. "They work well when delivered in sequence, like when seeing multiple ads while watching one show," she says. In that scenario, the ads avoid repetition but still work together to reinforce the same message. "It adds up to one big, high-impact impression."
The Long and Short of It
There is evidence that bumper ads are most effective when used in conjunction with longer spots. Research conducted by the FreeWheel Council for Premium Video (FWC) found that six-second ads have a more positive impact when used to reinforce a message already delivered by a longer ad.
Shorter ads of six- and 15-seconds outperform 30-second spots on average happiness and engagement across the duration of the ad, while the longer ads have higher peaks of both happiness and engagement at certain points during their viewing time, but lower averages across their duration.
The FWC report theorizes that six-second ads may benefit from a larger halo effect from the related content, while the longer ad formats have more opportunity to tell a story and engage the viewer. "Six-second spots can be incredibly versatile," Rose says. "Used as teasers for a longer campaign video, bumpers can pique interest and create anticipation for upcoming product launches or announcements. They can also be a great way to amplify a print or out-of-home campaign."
Indeed, a Google/Ipsos study found that a video ad sequence of three six-second spots had a significantly higher impact than single 30-second TrueView ads (ads that are viewed in their entirety) regarding ad recall and purchase intent, with an increased average lift of 107 percent and 134 percent, respectively.
While Woodford acknowledges the role six-second ads can play as part of a larger campaign, he stresses that it's critical for brands to know who is seeing their ads when they're used in this manner. "Serialized storytelling requires hyper-targeting or retargeting to ensure your message makes sense to viewers," he says.
He also argues that brands can — and do — use six-second spots independently to promote new products, services, and messages sans a larger campaign, and points to a one-off ad spot for PG tips, a British tea brand.
Not a One-Trick Pony
On the media-buying side, six-second ads are versatile and not limited to serving as bumpers slapped on YouTube videos. They offer brands lots of different opportunities and formats to get their message in front of the right eyeballs.
"Six-second ads can definitely be redeployed for other types of marketing initiatives beyond YouTube," says Tierney Wilson, managing director at agency January Digital, whose clients include DKNY, David's Bridal, and Peapod. The same video, she says, can be used in paid and organic marketing on other social platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Pinterest, as well as in programmatic display advertising, on site, and email messaging. "Brands should ensure that their six-second ads are being used across all paid social and organic platforms, as well as on their website. This ensures a holistic content experience, regardless of where the user is," Wilson adds.
Subaru relies on its agency partner to make sure its six-second ads get in front of the largest number of viewers, especially preferred consumers. "The media team at Carmichael Lynch is masterful at getting the right content in front of the right people at the right time," Cavallucci says. "So it really is a combination of great creative matched with a solid media plan. That's where we have been most successful."