A couple of years back, when Tata Sky released Prison Break, its famed three-and-a half minute-long commercial, everyone stopped to take notice. After all, it was "such a long ad." Today though, long-format ads - those longer than 60 seconds, some going up all the way up to seven minutes - have become the order of the day. Recent examples include Tata AIA's Daddy aur Zooey film, Google's Reunion film, HUL's film for Kissan, Pepsi's Diwali-themed Homecoming film, Amazon's film for its Kindle, British Airways' films, Fortune Oil's hospital film and Lifebuoy's Gondappa film.
They're all stories, not mere ads.
Sure, this trend has a lot to do with the fact that the digital medium affords marketers with this sort of length, unlike television that drains their media monies. But, the long format film, it turns out, has a significant role to play in the larger - or lengthier - scheme of things.
According to an article by Millward Brown, "smart long-form videos reinforce core ideas and enhance brand associations that can influence future purchase occasions." The article goes on to say "long-form advertising presents a greater chance of polarisation. Marketers should embrace the opportunity to develop an ardent following or build buzz," that long-form ads, must "inspire, surprise, or excite to maintain viewer attention and interest."
Arun Iyer, national creative director, Lowe Lintas + Partners, says, "With social media, word of mouth has now got a medium. If you have an opinion on something, it's for the world to see. Brands have recognised that going forward they will have to be a part of these conversations to be relevant on a daily basis, rather than just giving information about themselves."
A long format film, no doubt, helps build engagement, and in some cases, interaction even. Consider DBS Bank's Chilli Paneer films for example: While the first leg of the campaign comprised four three-minute episodes, the second leg comprised a 16-minute-long film, in which the viewer was required to click to decide the next course of action for the protagonists. In Fastrack's recent Keep Trippin' film, the viewer was able to make multiple purchases by clicking on the products worn by the actors.
Sheran Mehra, head, group strategic marketing and communications, DBS Bank India, explains, "Our films are about connecting people. Our research shows that food is a big conversation starter. So we wove a story around it and made it interactive. For us, a TV spot wouldn't have been as effective, because our audience is not spread all over India."
Here's an interesting sub-trend: A majority of the long format ads out there are tear-jerkers; they are human interest stories, which tend to be about heady emotions, hope and fighting the odds. In fact, of late, there has been a plethora of films about people with physical ailments or disabilities. For example, Nescafe's stand-up comic stammers, Dabur Vatika's leading lady is a cancer survivor, Birla Sun Life Insurance's protagonist is a single father of an autistic child, Lux's ambassador Katrina Kaif is being photographed by a blind photographer, and HDFC Life's latest is about a father who ensures that money doesn't get in the way of his daughter's dancing ambition although she wears a prosthetic limb.
Sure, emotions make an appearance in long international ad films too. Consider Sainsbury's Christmas-themed film (London, 2014), Skype's famous relationship-themed film (USA, 2013) or Thai Life Insurance's touching 2014 campaign. They all tug at the heartstrings. Intel's Project Daniel campaign (USA, 2014) spoke about 3D printing of artificial limbs for children in Sudan.
Even so, emotion seems to work especially well in India. Santosh Padhi, chief creative officer and co-founder, Taproot India, says, "Consumers are bored of the 'fastest, strongest' pitch; they want to hear stories that connect. Brands that have taken a human angle without trying to oversell the product have done well in the long format."
Moreover, it is easier for a brand to sustain viewer attention over three minutes with emotions, than with, say, humour. A joke cannot be stretched for that long, but an emotional film can use the build-up to its advantage. And on the digital medium, where the viewer has full control over what she watches, a brand cannot risk losing her interest midway.
There is some moral unease about this trend. "We are almost taking advantage of the fact that people suffer. I don't feel right about it," asserts Lowe's Iyer, "For the sake of eyeballs we shouldn't be using stories that show underprivileged or handicapped people. It crosses the line when you try to guilt-trip the consumer into watching the film."
There is another concern. How many times can a viewer watch the same story when she knows how it ends? Answers Ajay Kakar, chief marketing officer, financial services, Aditya Birla Group, "If the story is engaging and relatable, it will work. People watch the same film over and over again. Similarly, if a long format ad tells an engaging story, it will work." His recent three-and-a-half minute-long 'Khud ko kar buland' film has fetched over 3.5 million views on YouTube within a month. Some experts feel long format ads can fetch repeat views if they are nuanced and layered; while the first time people want to know how it ends, they will watch it again to enjoy the finer details and the telling of the tale.
Chandrasekar Radhakrishnan, head of communications, Nestle India, is equally confident: "Our experience (with long format films) confirms that good content drives high levels of engagement and memorability, and the length of the film is not a deterrent to repeat viewing."
While crafted primarily for the digital medium, often, shorter versions of these films are released on television. Nestle's Radhakrishnan says, "Digital platforms allow the flexibility to roll out content without the time and cost constraints experienced on traditional channels. We have also spun off some of these executions, for distribution in conventional media channels, in line with the brand and media objectives of these campaigns."
The length of the film, Radhakrishnan explains, is dictated by the strategy of the brand. "There is no formula for the length of the edit but it should drive the brand message effectively and efficiently within the allocated budgets," he says.
However, not all marketers are this cautious. In some cases, the lengthy version itself is aired on TV. How does the modern day marketer justify the media plan?
Take the example of Wagh Bakri's recent four-minute-long 'Rishton ki garmahat' film about a married couple, estranged by technology. Backed by a media budget of Rs 5 crore (four times more than the baseline spend), the entire film was aired on TV on January 26 over a 100 times. The brand had pre-booked slots across news channels, HD channels of Hindi GECs, and select Marathi and Gujarati channels.
Says Parag Desai, executive director, sales, marketing and international trade, Wagh Bakri Tea Group, "Advertising isn't supposed to sell. It is supposed to assist the brand imagery by making consumers connect with the brand. Our story could have been told in a shorter duration, but that would be cheating our consumers. We took this decision from the heart, even though it has no financial justification."
Some media planners, however, insist that airing long format ads on TV can actually yield high returns, provided the target audience is sharply defined. For instance, for a premium brand that wants to reach consumers from SEC A+, airing a five minute-long film six times on select channels like English GECs, English News and English movie channels would make more strategic sense than endlessly airing a 30 seconder across irrelevant channels.
Explains Himanka Das, senior vice president, west, Carat Media Services, "The media planner has to achieve the best visibility possible while managing the marketer's funds. If the messaging is complicated it might need a longer format ad, even on TV. But once the initial message has been established, shorter edits can be put out as reminder films. One needs a sustainable plan and cannot exhaust the budget in the first go itself."
Concurs Amit Kekre, national strategic planning head, DDB Mudra Group, "Releasing a long format ad on TV might make sense if the brand is looking to make a high decibel entry, but otherwise, exhausting your entire budget in putting one long video on television is not wise. Also, the message ought to be potent enough to stand the test of longevity and create a ripple effect."
According to Chandramohan Mehra, senior vice president, marketing, SAB TV, comedy entertainment channel from Multi Screen Media that recently rolled out a two minute-long film about the way technology hinders human interactions, "The metric of the effectiveness of the ad is not necessarily the frequency of exposures. As long as the ad meets the pre-defined communication objectives, with limited exposures, the length of the ad may be irrelevant in the final ROI analysis."
In the view of Daren Poole, global brand director, creative development, Millward Brown, a lot of the content being produced today would be of the "single view" type. "Only the truly great would merit another watch or indeed a share. That's why we think it's important to test longer format ads, to ensure that they are going to deliver ROI for the brand. Ultimately, repeat viewing is not the end goal; lasting brand impact is," he cautions.
Recall that Apple Inc. launched its first computer through an ad that was aired during the Super Bowl (1984). Though the film was shown just once, it created ample buzz.
One thing most of the recent long format films have in common is the brand makes a guest appearance towards the fag end. Should marketers be worried about high ad recall but poor brand recall? Also, since the product benefits per se are not highlighted in such films, is it fair to say brand building comes at a price?
The trick, say experts, is to make the film look like anything but an ad. "Generally long format films do not have a call to action," notes ND Badrinath, founding partner of Aqumena, a Mumbai-based marketing consultancy, "The moment it starts to look like an ad - be it because of a 'click here to know more' button or the brand logo on the screen - the viewer may get put off."
Of course, the ideal scenario is one in which the product angle is subtly integrated into the story. Nescafe seems to have struck the right balance in its famous 'stutter film' thanks to the line towards the end - "Thank God for coffee... Isne mujhe lagaye rakha (kept me going) aur aapko jagaye rakha (kept you awake)..." as did Google in its Reunion film, in which the protagonist uses different products by Google to track down a long-lost pal.
Of all the cogs in the ad-making system, it is the filmmaker who is most pleased about the long format trend. Ad filmmakers typically create long versions of their 30 seconders for their showreels. Called the 'Director's Cut', these films are the director's way of indulging his creative quirks.
The long format film is, therefore, a creative playground for them an official one at that. The flipside is that the intense visual planning can sometimes take a toll on directors as they try their best to stay true to the characters, storyline and details therein, without overshadowing the brand's philosophy in the process.
E Suresh founder and creative director, Eeksaurus Films is certain this trend is here to stay. "Because of long format ads, agencies have also come forward to collaborate with external talent. While working on Kit-Kat's astronaut film, we had lyricist and playback singer Swanand Kirkire writing the song for us. This wouldn't have been possible for a short ad where the brand wants to just talk about its products."
As more and more brands jump on to the bandwagon, the format may see more changes, the story-telling may evolve, and technology may get impacted as well. At the end of the day, it is suddenly a new playing field for most of the people involved. And they aren't complaining.
A Note From the Editor
Last week, I saw this film in the theatre. The plot was superb; the actors were exceptional. And yet, the film was unwatchable. It went on for two-and-a-half hours - and it was at least 30 minutes too long. It brought up a question that always arises in my mind: how can a talented director be blind to what every lay person in the hall can see - that the story has lost its grip on the audience?
I could ask the same question about a whole crop of long-format ad films that have been made in recent months. Do they need to be that long?
Creative folks and clients are generally used to being pressed mercilessly for time on the TV screen because it costs so much. To realise that the cost of creating a 4-minute-long ad film is not that much greater than making a 30-seconder, especially when one takes into account that the media cost online could be zero, is to discover heaven. So, why not make a long, really loooong film? The sense of being unfettered is exhilarating.
Some of these long-format attempts are truly exceptional: the Lifebuoy Gondappa film and the one on the Nescafe stutterer are my personal favourites. In many others, however, there is more than a trace of self-indulgence. The point of the story is underlined again and again and there is a clear temptation to make the viewer teary-eyed, whenever possible. So, if the typical 30-seconder in India runs mostly on humour, the 3-minute ad film is often powered by tears.
There is no question that the possibilities of the long-format film are exciting. I am curious where this will go once the novelty value wears out for advertisers, agencies - and, most importantly, for viewers. I think marketers and agencies will begin to examine the impact of these early attempts more critically and that will lead to a fresh round of creative, relevant long-format films - that may not be so long.