The country would still be waking up in Ronald Reagan’s “It’s Morning Again in America” advertisement. The little girl with the daisy in the ad for Lyndon Johnson would not yet have counted past seven, the bomb left undetonated. And the phone in Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “3 a.m.” spot would still be ringing.
Fifteen seconds is not a lot of time in the world of political advertising to make a compelling statement or share a riveting candidate story. But in the attention-deficit era of politics, with voters consuming more and more news on mobile devices, campaigns and the groups supporting them are devoting significant resources and energy to the micro ads that dominate the digital landscape.
The result is an explosion of shorter, attention-grabbing spots that have made political messaging all the more blunt and, at times, creative.
“It’s incumbent upon us as ad makers to adapt as the format changes as well, and not just adapt in terms of reducing the length of an existing video, but actually rethink the creative and express the message in a new way,” said Josh Sharp, the chief creative officer at Harbinger Outreach, a Republican events and marketing firm.
With Americans shifting their attention away from television to mobile platforms and social media — Facebook says that more than 50 percent of its daily active users in the United States watch at least one video on the site every day, and Google tells clients that by 2018, 84 percent of all Internet traffic will be for video— it is not surprising that campaigns and outside groups are moving their resources there.
According to an August report by Borrell Associates, an advertising research firm that tracks media trends, digital ad spending is expected to top $1 billion for the first time in 2016, an increase of nearly 700 percent from 2012, when it reached roughly $160 million.
“Ultimately advertising will always go to where the voters are, and as these new channels are being developed, the campaigns will have to adjust to that,” Mr. Sharp said.
The 15-second digital ad is appealing to campaigns for several reasons. First, there is more inventory for shorter online ads, making them easier and cheaper to snap up. Second, the completion rate for well-produced digital ads is often higher than for their television counterparts.
“When you’re keeping your content bite-sized and tailored to your audience, you have a much better return,” said Suzanne Henkels, spokeswoman for NextGen Climate Action, a “super PAC” focused on climate change and founded by Tom Steyer.
Digital ads also allow for a more precise — and often more efficient — way to reach voters. “On YouTube, we can target directly to a congressional district or a state or a metropolitan area,” said Lee Dunn, who leads the elections team at Google, which owns YouTube.
And political organizations are taking notice. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce ran 15-second ads in six competitive Senate states this summer, each aimed at a distinct demographic. “The beauty of this digital stuff is you can tell who’s clicking on it, how long they’re staying on it, and we can track them from cradle to grave — did they vote?” said Scott W. Reed, senior political strategist at the chamber.
But while political strategists recognize the importance of digital ads, they also acknowledge the challenge of perfecting the science that makes an online spot successful.
“You have a lot more time in a TV ad to present a hook to capture a viewer, but in the social space, it can be milliseconds,” said Matt David, a strategist for New Day, the super PAC supporting Gov. John R. Kasich of Ohio, a Republican. In the digital space, he continued, “you have to be much more creative visually, but also with a much more tight message and hook that’s upfront.” (A recent Snapchat ad by the group earned praise for authentically and concisely conveying Mr. Kasich’s message in just 10 seconds.)
Though no single formula exists, strategists agree on several basic rules for grabbing voters’ attention. First and foremost is front-loading the ad by placing the most important message in the first few seconds.
Dynamic visuals, eye-catching graphics and compelling music can also help. “The content that works best in shorter form is content that’s smart, that’s funny, and that’s inviting,” said Rob Saliterman, head of political advertising at Snapchat, where all content runs a maximum of 10 seconds and requires vertical video format
During the 2014 election, for example, NextGen released a 15-second digital ad featuring millennials dressed as dancing bananas and monkeys, urging viewers — within the very first second — to remember to vote on Election Day.
Smart campaigns are also making sure the message matches the medium. On Facebook and Twitter, videos begin to play automatically, but without sound, which makes attention-grabbing visuals critical. And on Snapchat, the best spots often mimic the authentic, raw and humorous feel of other Snapchat videos.
And, of course, just like television, content reigns supreme. “You can make any 15-second ad you want, but if they’re boring, and people are just overwhelmed with the amount of advertising out there, then they’re not going to stick out,” said Anton Vuljaj, a Republican digital consultant.
A new generation of admen and women seems already to have grasped that an effective digital ad is a different beast, and not simply the best 15 seconds from a 30- or 60-second TV spot, cut down for digital.
Days after announcing his presidential bid, Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, tried a quirky approach to skipable online video, first popularized by Geico. His campaign released a 15-second YouTube ad that began with an unlikely, and direct, appeal: “Please don’t skip this video,” Mr. Paul says. “We must take our country back.”
Another video — released on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and YouTube — featured Mr. Paul taking a chain saw and a wood chipper to the tax code, and underscored the new role of online advertising, both as a growth area for politics and a virtual sandbox for experimentation and even playfulness.
“It was unique, it was riveting, and the actual content wasn’t a normal boring political spot,” said Vincent Harris, Mr. Paul’s chief digital strategist. “You don’t often see somebody who is an elected official sitting with a chain saw and a wood chipper and lighting things on fire, so that uniqueness piqued people’s interest.”
“That is part of the blessing and the curse of the actual ad format online,” he added. “If you are not piquing people’s interest, they are just skipping.”