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best length for radio commercial

Recently I wrote in this space about 30- vs. 60-second radio commercials.

But what about “cultural differences”?

I have worked with radio stations and advertising agencies in 36 different countries so far. And wherever I go, people tell me why their market is “different.”

In North America, most commercials run either 30 or 60 seconds. In some countries the standard is 20 seconds; in some places it’s 15 and in others it’s 40.

In some countries there is no standard; advertisers play a flat rate per second.

(In those countries, you tend to hear very short commercials that are crammed with copy, as advertisers foolishly try to measure the value of their investment by “words per second” rather than “impact per dollar.”)

I have been told (with great assurance) that “Dutch audiences absolutely will not listen to a commercial that lasts more than 20 seconds.”

I have been lectured to on almost every continent about how “people here” simply cannot concentrate for longer than whatever the standard commercial happens to be in that country.

And how did each of those countries determine the “optimum length” of the commercials it would present to its radio listeners? Was it via some double-blind, scientific test that compared various commercial lengths and carefully controlled for other, outside variables?

Well, no.

What happened was when commercials first aired in that country, whoever ran the first radio station(s) arbitrarily picked a number. And that arbitrary number magically became the “ideal” number of seconds for radio commercials in that country.

Isn’t it odd that thousands of Dutch TV viewers regularly sit through 22 minutes of The Simpsons...but don’t have the mental concentration to stick with a radio commercial for longer than 20 seconds?

The British, meanwhile, have 150% the attention span of the Dutch, because they regularly sit through :30s (and with increasing frequency, :60s).

Clearly, Colombia must have the most attention-deficit afflicted citizens. Most of their commercials last ten seconds.

Are American motion pictures — which invariably run at least 90 minutes — edited down to 20 or 30 seconds for other, “different” cultures?

“But wait,” you protest. “You can’t compare TV shows and movies to radio commercials. The programs and movies are interesting, so of course people will sit through them!”

And the truth lies within that protest: If your commercials are interesting to your target audience, they will listen for as long…as they remain interested.

You don’t maintain their interest solely by being “entertaining.” You maintain their interest by being relevant to their lives.

As long as your sales message speaks directly and relevantly to the lives of your target audience, it can’t last too long.

Here’s what I mean by relevance as it affects perceived length of message:

Probably you know there is a TV channel devoted, 24/7, to nothing but Golf?

With deepest apologies to the golf fanatics who are reading this, you couldn’t pay me to watch five minutes of The Golf Channel…because I don’t play or care about golf.

But for the only thing you could offer the golf enthusiasts of the world  that would be better than a 24-hour-a-day golf channel would be two 24-hour-a-day golf channels.

To them, anything about golf is fascinating…even if it lasts longer than 10/15/20/30/60 seconds.

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  • Scott November 11, 2010, 4:10 am

    I agree. I only wish more advertisers got it. I write and produce ads daily in small market radio, and most of the time I am forced to write ads crammed with “for all your ___ needs”, oh and be sure to include the hours (Monday and Tuesday 9 to 5; Wednesday 9 to Noon; Thursday 8 to 3; and Friday 9 to 8. Saturdays by appointment; Closed Sunday) and the phone number…in 30 seconds…sigh.

  • Wyatt Cox/KELY November 11, 2010, 7:23 am

    I feel ya, Scott.
    For what it’s worth, I’m in probably a smaller town than you, at an original Class C AM (250 watts) and competing against a 30KW FM.
    Educating clients who, for 60 years, were sold just that kind of announcement, has been a challenge.

    They honestly believe there’s no difference between Radio and Newspaper advertising. They’re learning. One client at a time.

  • Ben November 14, 2010, 6:22 am

    I guess my hardest spot each week is the grocery store that sends me their flier each week. Hard (for me) to make that interesting every week.

  • Muzzy November 4, 2013, 1:38 pm

    Fantastic article! I’m a newbie to radio adwriting, so its great to hear from you and other posters. Keep it up!