And Now for a Syllable From Our Sponsor

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By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 17, 2007

It goes by so quickly -- sneeze and you'll miss it -- that it's almost not there at all. Just as one song on the radio fades away and another begins, a ghostly voice intones: "Iced coffee at McDonald's."

No elaboration, no product superiority claims, no "tastes great!" braggadocio. Just four words. And gone.

Way back when, radio commercials were 60 seconds long. Eventually, the :60 begat the 30-second ad, which begat the :15. More recently, some spots have shrunk to just five seconds. Now, "Iced coffee at McDonald's" is part of the vanguard of radio commercials that take this trend to its obvious next diminution: the two-second ad.

Two-second ads have been popping up anew -- briefly, of course -- on stations owned by Clear Channel Communications, the radio leviathan that developed the concept and began selling it to marketers last year. Listen closely, and quickly, and you'll hear the McDonald's adlet between spins of, say, "Spirit in the Sky" and "Another Brick in the Wall" on local oldies station WBIG-FM. Or you might hear the fast-food chain's jingle -- Bah-dah-bam-bam-BAH! -- between Billy Joel and Elton John tunes on WASH-FM, Clear Channel's soft-rock station.

Nano-ads are being sold as a clever innovation for advertisers, even if some listeners might consider them a distracting new intrusion.

The two-second format -- Clear Channel calls them "blinks" -- offers two immediate benefits for advertisers. Because the ultra-brief ads pop up within the programs themselves, they don't compete for consumers' attention with longer ads packed into minutes-long commercial breaks. (Clear Channel says it will run no more than two "blinks" per hour.) The second advantage is the ads' brevity and, well, sneakiness: A listener would have to be mighty fast on the draw to zap a two-second spot. (Clear Channel declined to disclose the price charged for nano-ads.)

As such, "blinks" are the radio equivalent of the take-you-by-surprise school of marketing. Internet sites for years have flashed pop-up ads at computer users. TV networks are increasingly plugging upcoming shows with text-and-animation messages that appear at the bottom of the TV screen at the start of a new program ("CSI: Later tonight on CBS!"). These kinds of ads proceed from the assumption that the audience is essentially captive and won't -- or can't -- switch away before seeing the sponsor's message.

"At this point, the longer the commercial, the more annoying it is to people," says Dave Pugh, the head of Clear Channel's eight stations in the area. "If it's going to be longer, it has to be more interesting, more engaging and more meaningful. Longer isn't necessarily better.

"Let's face it," Pugh adds, "we're an ADD [attention deficit disorder] society."

It's pretty hard to be boring in two seconds. But it's also difficult to convey many of the things that advertising traditionally does, such as prices, comparisons, descriptions, ordering information or a brand "image," says Jeff Haley, president of the Radio Advertising Bureau, an industry promotion group.

Given the limits of human perception -- how much of a message can you absorb in two seconds? -- Haley says flash ads don't really work very well for small advertisers with unfamiliar messages. Instead, he says, the biggest beneficiaries are likely to be companies that have already spent millions of dollars pounding jingles, images and word associations into consumers' heads, such as Rice Krispies ("Snap, crackle, pop!") or Aamco ("Double A -- beep-beep-- M-C-O").

"There's a fair degree of skepticism about the effectiveness of" the two-second ads, Haley says.

The radio industry intends to find out just how effective super-short ads are. The National Association of Broadcasters, composed of radio and TV companies, in April commissioned a year-long academic study on the new ads. David Allan, a St. Joseph's University marketing professor who will conduct the research, surmises that "blinks" are best remembered by listeners who've already heard 60- and 30-second ads for the same product or service.

"I don't think this is going to replace [longer] ads on the radio," Allan says. "But the radio industry realizes that it may have reached a tipping point" in packing so many ads into broadcasts. Short ads "may be a way to cut the clutter and still make money. It's something new and different."

For the moment, however, short-attention-span ads haven't exactly taken over radio since Clear Channel introduced them last summer. McDonald's is one of only two national advertisers that have taken up the two-second challenge. The other is the Fox network, which last fall promoted its TV shows with a few short-shorts. One featured Homer Simpson uttering his signature expression -- "D'oh!" -- followed by the voice-over "Tonight on Fox."

Fox spokesman Scott Grogin says the radio ads were "experimental." But the experiment doesn't appear to have been a success; Fox hasn't deployed similar ads since and Grogin says so far they don't figure into the network's plans for next season.

Which is fine by Robert Weissman, managing director of Commercial Alert, an activist group that opposes excessive commercialism. Weissman says super-short ads are a great idea if they mean fewer ads overall. But he doesn't think that's going to happen; instead, he figures it will merely permit radio stations to shoehorn advertising into areas that had previously been commercial-free.

"I realize the for-profit media needs a revenue model," he says, "but there has to be more respect for the consumers' desire to let their guard down and enjoy the music without someone trying to get them to buy something."

Even so, Haley suggests we haven't seen the end of this. Just wait until election season, he says. Next up as races heat up, perhaps: the one-second ad.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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