Consumer attention spans are shrinking, and so is the length of the average TV spot. Over the past four years, the 15-second ad has grown in popularity, particularly in the commercial world. But it’s not a trend many political media strategists have jumped on board with just yet. One of the exceptions to that rule: Democratic strategist Dane Strother.

“If you can’t articulate your message in 15 seconds, then it’s probably not a very strong message in the first place,” says Strother, who has been utilizing the 15-second spot in local races for the past five years.  

Given FEC disclaimer laws, which force candidates for federal office to spend anywhere from six to eight seconds telling voters they approved the ad that just aired, the 15-second spot has limited viability in House or Senate contests. But in state legislative races, and other local elections, the truncated ad can be a powerful tool.

One way to use the shorter ads, says Strother, is to purchase two 15-second spots on either side of a commercial break. It’s about the same price as purchasing a 30-second spot, and the two spots can act as bookends. Strother typically starts with a positive spot, and ends the break with a negative. During former Nevada Rep. Dina Titus’ 2006 campaign for governor, Strother says that was the precise media strategy he employed for the campaign.

“We kept hitting the opponent over and over again [with 15-second spots],” says Strother. “We won that primary having been outspent 3 to 1.”   

According to data from Nielsen, a total of 60,922 political spots aired in 2008 were 15-second ads. That same year, there were 2.7 million 30-second spots aired. In 2010, the number of 15-second political spots jumped to 164,065.

For the shorter ads to actually work, they shouldn’t be deployed as a desperation or money saving play, says Strother. Once you determine if it can work for your race, the 15-second spot should be built into the campaign plan from the start.  

Campaigns that have successfully used these ad spots are the ones that have used them to “only get one point across with no other explanation, no nothing,” says Fred Davis, CEO of Strategic Perception. Davis was the top ad man for Sen. John McCain’s 2008 White House bid.
Davis isn’t fond of the 15-second spot given its limited usefulness in federal races, but he says adapting them for local races makes sense.

“They are still not standard practice,” NCC Media’s Tim Kay says of the 15-second stand alone spots. “You need something to marry it with.”

The use of the 15-second commercial should be “strategic and intentional,” advises Scott Schweitzer of The Strategy Group for Media. “But for name ID races they can be cost-effective.” Schweitzer says that although he doesn’t recommend them for every client, and they are not quite half the cost of a 30-second spot, his firm still views them as a useful tool. “Typically, we’ll use them for a single issue focus,” he says.

Whether or not the 15-second political ad will become a mainstream tool is still an open question, but if the trend line holds the total number of the shorter spots deployed by campaigns across the country is likely to continue to rise.