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The Return of the Infomercial

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NEW YORK If you've already seen the ads touting the Walt Disney Company's new cellular offering, Disney Mobile, you probably grasp that it's designed to rein in your kids' cell phone use and abuse. But you might not know about the many other parent-friendly features it offers. After all, you can only communicate so much in 30 seconds.

That's why Disney is producing a half-hour TV series about the branded mobile service and gadget that's expected to debut on ABC Family by November. But don't call it an infomercial.

Still in development, the "storymercial" will incorporate viewer-suggested storylines and "mix the rational and the entertainment to explain features that could make a difference in families keeping track of each other and of minutes," said Vince Engel, the show's co-producer and executive creative director, partner, BuderEngel and Friends, San Francisco. Engel estimates that 80 percent of the footage will also turn up in other media, including the Web, mall kiosk monitors, DVDs and 2-3 minute TV commercial breaks.

Thanks to a convergence of trends—including the diverting of ad dollars from traditional TV, the rise of video sites like YouTube and the reduced costs of recycled content—long form is enjoying a vogue that's enabling marketers to answer the call of engagement and roll out products through more in-depth sales messages than a traditional spot can contain.

"When you stop and show consumers the impact that [product usage] will have on their work, you will convert them, but this just isn't possible in 30 or 60 seconds," said Doug Garnett, president, Atomic Direct. And given mounting retail pressure to "start selling from day one," long form is needed to build online and offline buzz for complex products long before they hit store shelves, said Meteor president Dave Merton, who consults for manufacturers.

The long-form revival is also traced to the availability of inexpensive bandwidth, from the Web to video on demand. "When you have the footage in the can, you can use it for streaming on the Internet, DVDs, point-of-purchase, VOD and other media without the production costs associated with reproducing a whole video," said Kevin Blodgett, director of marketing, Drill Doctor. Last September the company released Drill Doctor Next Generation, which Blodgett said would not have been made without multiple affordable outlets to illustrate its capabilities.

Three years before, Drill Doctor had gone from a novelty item at Sears to one of its top-selling tools. Blodgett attributed the Home Depot and Lowe's distribution that followed to the long-form demonstration, which aired on cable channels like Discovery and Home Garden and spawned DVDs, CDs, in-store displays and VOD and broadband programs, plus the consumer feedback that influenced the new model. The expanded format "was critical to crossing the chasm from an enthusiast to a less experienced, broader-based audience," said Garnett, who crafted the long-form campaign.

He cautioned, "Long form has to be more than a 30-second spot stretched to last a longer time." To avert such a "disaster," he urged presenting exclusive, brand-correct content that makes for great watching. Like its predecessor, the half-hour program for Drill Doctor Next Generation continues to register "1" ratings in its early Sunday morning slot, Garnett reported.

To be sure, much of today's content is a step up from the show-and-tells of the past. "Greater production values are allowing traditional concepts like demonstrations or before-and-after makeovers to have a lot more sex appeal," said Lynn Fantom, CEO, Interpublic Group's ID Media.

Engel partly attributed long-form's aesthetic revival to the "hipness" factor from popular viral sites, which "has attracted agency creatives." He explained, "In the past both creatives and clients viewed infomercials as not worth the effort, because people looked at them like the old Ginsu knives thing, and thought, "Ugh, I don't want to do that.' "

One of long-form's strongest suits is its efficacy in helping marketers clinch sales in the digital environment. "You're no longer driving the consumer to the 1-800 telemarketer," said Fantom, "but to the Web, where he or she can assume control over the marketing discussion." Fantom noted that clients are reporting better conversion rates for long-form advertising on navigable platforms like the Web and TiVo.

Indeed, in an age of opt-in customization, brandmercials allow niche audiences to search out inventory and conduct due diligence. Whereas the traditional spot focused on the lowest common denominator of one big idea, "so much of what is driving the [long-form] conversation is at the end points of the bell curve, said Pete Blackshaw, chief marketing officer, Nielsen BuzzMetrics.

It's a point that resonates with Engel. "The traditional spot is not necessarily the best way to reach audiences under the age of 35," he said, noting that Disney Mobile's offering is an "exploration of new ways to reach an audience."