Defending the 30 second TV spot (why old media still matters)

At the invitation of Bob Barocci, I gave a presentation at the ARF meetings Monday.  For reasons that are still not clear, I came to the aid of the creative industry, to the defense of the traditional 30 second spot.

Naturally, my timing was appalling.   This meeting probably marks the first in which virtually everyone in attendance “buys” the social media proposition.  So just when the late adopters arrive, yours truly stuns them with a defense of the old media.  Grant, fine work!

You can see the Volvo ad in question, by going to YouTube.  Click here.  

Hats of to the team from Euro RSCG Worldwide: Global Chief Executive Officer: David Jones, Chief Executive Officer, NY and San Francisco: Ron Berger, Executive Creative Director: Jeff Kling, Creative Director: Nick Cohen, Art Director: Julie Lamb, Copywriter: Risa Mickenberg, Contributor: Sharoz Marakechi, Jackson and Amy Richardson. Business Manager: Deborah Steeg, Talent: Dawn Kerr, PRODUCTION CREDITS, Production Company: Furlined, Director: Pekka Hara, Director of Photography: Joaquin Baca-Asay, Executive Producer: David Thorne, Producer: Rob Stark

For more on this approach to advertising, see McCracken, Grant. 2005.  Culture and Consumption: markets, meaning and brand management.  Indiana University Press.  (and especially the last chapter)

16 thoughts on “Defending the 30 second TV spot (why old media still matters)

  1. Pingback: How soon is now? » Blog Archive » The 30 Second Spot Is Dead, Long Live The 30 Second Spot

  2. Bob Clark

    Grant – smart presentation. The pendulum has swung far in the social
    direction for media. While it may not be that the emperor has no
    clothes, we have to put tweets and Facebook in perspective to build
    a brand message. Thanks for sharing the charts

  3. Alex Mitchell

    Hemingway is sometimes credited with the following short story: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” That’s definitely less than 140 characters, but I’m trying to imagine how a company like Volvo could use a line like that through social media to accomplish the same meaning creation for their brand as what they achieve through the 30 second spot you mentioned. Those 6 words, I think, could be used in a social media context to show how/why safety matters and make that meaning apply to Volvo. I just don’t know if it would have the same impact as the spot you linked …

    I feel as though you’re hitting on something else too. Brands are as much defined by what they are not, as what they are. A good brand has limits, and those limits are important. Social media seems to be all about immediacy and interaction; it’s an extension of the “always connected” attitude. Social media pushes limits. But the 30 second spot is not interactive and it is not connected, it is limited. It is a crafted artifact whose content and delivery is planned and then delivered unidirectionally; they make it, and you watch it (or hear it on the radio, I suppose). Isn’t that kinda great though?

    It seemed that even longer ads, > 30s, that were almost mini-movies were becoming even more common for a while there. I have no idea if that was a passing fancy … for example: Johnny Walker 2009 ( or more recently Chrysler 2011 ( It’s not everyone who’ll sit through a 6 minute ad for whisky, but I found that approach carried a lot of weight and genuinely made me appreciate that brand to a greater extent than I did previously.

    1. Grant Post author

      Alex, thanks for a great comment, yes, what I didn’t say strongly enough in my presentation, though I did say it in my “voice over” the slides, was that the name of the game now is dividing the communications labor across media. Some messages, and esp. as you say the interactive and immediacy labor should be done with social media. Some of the classic meaning making will still have to take place in the 30 second spot. Thanks again, Grant

  4. Carol L. Weinfeld

    Social media demonstrates brand value just as well or better than the 30 second spot by creating stories and conversations which engage consumers.


  5. Bud Caddell

    Grant, interesting talk + post.

    Some thoughts … and please know that my tone is collegiate.

    1) Fiesta, I’m a bit biased, but it may be factually incorrect to say that social media didn’t sell any more Fiestas. What’s the source of your data? Some of the data from Ford points to a cost-savings aspect, which isn’t necessarily linked to sales – like this quote from Jim Farley, CMO – “On the Fiesta Movement, we had higher unaided nameplate awareness than Fit or Yaris, and we spent 10 cents on the dollar, than a traditional tv ad campaign.” – Which, if you sell less cars but make a higher margin, that’s not bad for business. But, in terms of sales, Ford has released statistics such as, “Conversion rate of reservations to actual orders was 10X greater for Fiesta than other Ford vehicles.” – – which does indeed point to social media helping to sell some Fiestas.

    2) I can’t argue with you that film is an incredibly powerful medium. And in this case, you’re talking about a branded short form of that same medium that also receives considerable “mass” distribution. Social media, on the other hand, is a term we’ve given to digital linkages themselves. I think it’s apples to oranges – medium vs mechanism. And in most good cases, these two work in concert, so I worry that you’re being too reductive in your assessment here. Look at Old Spice as an example, the success of their campaign was due to the interaction of traditional and social media. The interaction is crucial. I’m worried because I read into your slides (excuse me, I wasn’t in attendance, so I’m drawing conclusions solely from your post) that your back to basics approach is really a rush to oversimplify what advertising is. Which I think is beneficial to the observer, but detrimental to the manufacturer of advertising.

    1. Grant Post author

      Bud, thanks for your comment. Sorry to take so long to approve it. I just missed it somehow. My data comes from this article And I dearly hope it’s wrong. As you know, I am a huge fan of the campaign. I think it’s absolutely first rate. But this article suggests it did not sell cars, or at least it didn’t sell more cars than competitors who did no social media work. This is the topic for a discussion over drinks. There are several possibilities. That people can love a campaign but not be moved by it. As to the second point, please do show me how social media manufactures meanings for the brand in the way that my “oversimplified” model suggested trad. advertising does. I am on record as saying that this is a matter of dividing labor across these approaches, but would insist that this is required of us precisely because there are some essential persuasive jobs that social media can’t (or can’t yet) perform. Thanks! Grant

  6. Tom Asacker

    Okay, I buy the beautifully transferred meaning that safety matters and Rosi is why it matters. What I don’t buy is that people are hungering for a “safer” car than their Audis, BMWs, Lexus’, VWs, Acuras, et al.

    1. grant mccracken

      Tom, good question. I am assuming the client has done it’s due diligence and discovered a) that consumers care about safety, and that b) Volvo can plausibly claim to deliver safety, and that c) Volvo has a long standing claim to safety. And it’s on this last point that the campaign makes special sense. It’s saying to the consumer, you have always believed in Volvo as a supplier of safety. Let us remind you why this really matters. And as long as Lexus etc are not also doing this, this should be enough for competitive advantage. Thanks, Grant

  7. Jess

    I feel like there’s a glitch in this argument.

    The point that you’re making is not a TV point, or a ‘spot’ point – it’s a video point. It’s about the fact that as human beings we’re massively well-adapted to parsing meaning within 30 seconds, and also so time poor and distracted that 30 seconds is about as much time as you get to make a point in a moving or entertaining way. The phrase ‘30-second spot’ is a misnomer as it’s redolent of TV media, which is actually kind of the least important thing about it.

    Take the VW ‘Force’ commercial. It boasts a lot of the attributes that make TV advertising great (slick editing, build to a pay-off etc) but the reason it went so bananas on Youtube is because people liked it and wanted to share it. The mechanism by which it was intended for distributin wasn’t necessarily social, but the creative strategy was. Isn’t this what we should be looking to create? Advertising with a message so well-delivered as to be inherently shareable/social?

    It’s the word ‘media’ that bothers me, I think. Social media and meaningful, short-form video are not mutually exclusive. When you espouse TV media as an essential part of the 30-second spot, which your slides kind of look like they’re doing, most marketers have a tendency to take the path of least resistance, which is basically to put any old tat out there on the understanding that people have no choice but watch it. If you’re trying to create a 30-second spot that works not only when you buy it into people’s faces but spreads organically through the web, it’s impossible to sideline creative in the same way.

  8. Jess

    And finally! Sorry. Something else about the Diet Coke and Pepsi thing. Everybody’s looking to the advertising to explain the difference between the two, which is an incredibly simplistic view given the intensive lobbying that’s happened around the preponderance of sugary drinks in the USA over the last few years. Both Coke AND Pepsi are getting slammed by a proliferation of seemingly healthier alternatives, and this adage piece doesn’t once reference the fact that Diet coke has one calorie per can, whereas Pepsi has 150.

    Is there a behavioural shift here that goes a bit deeper than who spend more on big media?

  9. Mark Lewis

    I think you can find some examples of where social media has been remarkably successful, but where video plays a role to. The Smirnoff Ice Tea video was the only media that ran for the brand (I think). A great piece of film, made more spreadable by being social. The recent WWF unprintable document campaign did not even use video (though I am not sure of the success numbers).

    Ultimately, I agree that video is great at meaning transfer because of the multiple stimuli used. But my friend telling me about something on a social network or brand providing a social experience can transfer meaning to.

    1. Grant Post author

      Mark, thanks! I don’t doubt that social media works as a great editorial and distribution device. Where before I was forced to sit on a couch and watch anything Mad Ave choose to fire in my direction, now I can wait for friends to choose (edit) good ads from all the bad ones, and pipe that ad to me via Twitter. This is adding access and approval but I’m not sure it is adding meaning. At least not “capital M” meaning of the kind that planners are usually tasked with discovering and sourcing for the brand. I think back to the Fiesta campaign and there were some wonderful events (aka assignments, I think they were called) people driving their cars til the ran out of gas, etc. And this is lively and entertaining and as I argued in the pages of the HBR blog it makes the brand seem like it has a clue about what engages us. But does it makes Fiesta mean in the way it has to mean for people to want to buy it. I assumed it did til I saw those sales figures. And now I don’t know. Thanks, thanks, thanks. Grant

  10. Sedate Me

    I completely agree that it’s time advertising get back to the basics and stop playing complicated mind games. It’s time to stop the data mining, the product placements, the viral marketing, all the
    aggressive spying and attempts at mind control. Not only are they the acts of deceptive low-lives, I can’t imagine they are very effective.

    That may sound hostile, but that hostility is well earned. The ad industry is morphing into a version of The Men Who Stare At Goats. They are is becoming a paramilitary psy-op unit of corporations out to destroy the enemy, the free will of potential customers, using every weapon at their disposal…including anthropologists?

    The industry’s focus seems increasingly less about introducing or demonstrating the value of a product and more about tracking, spying on and breaking the resistance of people. Sure, there are a lot of mindless sheep out there who’ll bend over for anything. But they’re easy pickings. You don’t need such tricks for them. The fact is most people resent being bullied and manipulated. Most completely block out ads without even being conscious of it. But if they ever regain consciousness, a major blow-back may be headed the ad industry’s way.

    Whether the Mad Men (or even us) realize it or not, they’ve made us hate them and everything they do. Forget chasing tiny margins by slapping ads everywhere (toilets!) and all the penny-ante subliminal stuff (product placement). It’s wasting client money and the ad-clutter only reduces the value of all ads. Just like with ads on hockey rink boards, the only people who notice are the ones bothered by it. Our natural ad resistance grows as fast as the ad-creep does.

    So, get back to the basics. Major network TV ads still reach millions and they are a more honest approach. Worry about selling the product, not the sell itself. What ultimately sells the best is a good product people need, or at least want. A “good” ad just introduces you to the product without trying to outsmart you, spy on you, trick you, or harass you until you give in.

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