Why the 6-Second TV Ad No Longer Works for Many Advertisers

The once-revolutionary linear format is now ancient history

A stopwatch at 6 seconds
After an initial wave of excitement in late 2017 and 2018, enthusiasm has waned for 6-second TV ads. Getty Images
Headshot of Jason Lynch

Key Insights

The ad inventory in next month’s Super Bowl, which has been sold out since mid-November, includes spots of all sizes: 15 seconds, 30 seconds, 60 seconds, even 90 seconds. Well, almost all sizes: Fox did not sell any six-second ads in the game.

“We’re very mindful of clutter,” explained Seth Winter, evp of sports sales for Fox Sports. “And frankly, I think six-second ads are clutter.”

Fox isn’t the only one in the industry moving away from a linear ad format that was seen as revolutionary when it was introduced—ironically, by that very same network—just 2 1/2 years ago. But after an initial wave of excitement in late 2017 and 2018, enthusiasm has waned. According to data compiled for Adweek by iSpot.tv, the number of six-second ads in major TV events has fallen off dramatically in the past year, from 77 in 2018 to just six in the first 11 months of 2019.

Shortly after Joe Marchese was named Fox Networks Group ad sales chief in May 2017, he announced plans to adopt YouTube’s nonskippable six-second ad format, which Fox said offered brand lift, heightened consumer engagement and improved viewer experience. Fox debuted the first six-second linear spots that August during the 2017 Teen Choice Awards and expanded the format that fall to NFL, baseball and soccer games on Fox and FS1. Other networks quickly followed suit: AMC added the format to The Walking Dead, which was then TV’s No. 1 show in the adults 18-49 demo, and NBC partnered with Toyota to bring six-second ads to the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Yet despite the early fervor, reality soon set in for buyers. Limited inventory was an issue—“It’s hard to scale those unit lengths when they’re very sporadic,” said Maureen Bosetti, chief partnerships officer, investment at Initiative—and disagreements over pricing surged. A 15-second ad costs half as much as a 30-second spot, but networks were charging a premium. “It wasn’t being priced efficiently. We were paying almost the same as a 15,” said Bosetti.

Coming up with the proper creative for that abbreviated length was also a challenge. “You can make a 30 into a 15 and still get the message across,” said Carrie Drinkwater, executive director of integrated investments at MullenLowe’s Mediahub. “But we can’t just cut a 15 to a six” because a succinct spot requires a different kind of creative approach.

And ultimately, many advertisers preferred their longer spots. “They’re spending a lot of money to make these ads, and they want to run them in full,” said Bosetti.

The format gave networks their share of headaches, too. “You have to find the exact right place for a six-second ad,” said Dan Lovinger, evp, advertising sales at NBC Sports Group. Regarding Sunday Night Football, he said, “We have such a wonderful announcing team; the last thing you want to do is break their narrative while they’re trying to make a point so you can squeeze a six-second ad in. It doesn’t make sense for the advertisers, the viewer or the production.”

The market began drying up last year, with some networks dropping the format because of waning interest (among them, AMC stopped selling six-second ads on The Walking Dead and its spinoff Fear the Walking Dead in the second quarter).

Meanwhile, Marchese left Fox before the Disney deal closed in March 2019. Marianne Gambelli, now president of ad sales for Fox Corp, told Adweek in May that the company had shifted strategy away from some of the formats he had introduced, including six-second ads. “Our assets have changed, so the idea is to right-size innovation for who we are today,” she said.

Disney, however, has found some value in the format “when it’s used as a reinforcing message that happens before or after a custom integration,” said Josh Mattison, vp, business operations at Disney. That’s how it deployed six-second spots for AT&T during its NBA on Christmas Day games, which aired on ABC and ESPN. The format “is effective in linear as reinforcing, but it’s not as effective at introducing a brand message as a 30-second spot. It’s about the right tool for the right job in a linear environment,” he continued.

Buyers and networks alike remain bullish on six-second ads in the digital and social space, where they are an organic fit with the short-form content on those platforms. And while the format clearly isn’t the linear game changer that some may have hoped it would be in 2017, some buyers aren’t willing to throw in the towel on its TV prospects quite yet.

“Advertisers have to get comfortable with shorter-form video lengths and how to use them in their overall arsenal of creative,” said Bosetti. “If you can do it in a compelling way, I think there could be a role for it.”

6-Second Spots’ Sharp Decline

Chart depicting the increase and decrease of 6-second TV ads from major networks like Fox, NBC, ESPN, ABC and CBS.
iSpot.tv

Six-second ads started with a bang in 2017, according to data compiled for Adweek by iSpot.tv, which surveyed the number of six-second spots each month in tentpole TV programing like award shows, sports finals and other special events. That momentum continued into 2018, peaking with baseball and football games that fall. But those spots declined precipitously in 2019, falling to just six in all through last November.


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This story first appeared in the Jan. 6, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@jasonlynch jason.lynch@adweek.com Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.
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