Some consumer products companies are trying to get more out of their TV advertising budgets by selling two products in the same commercial time used for more than a decade to sell one.
The television networks have been cool to the practice, which they describe as an experiment, while some major advertisers have been openly critical of it.
The fear is that more products advertised in the same commercial space will clutter the airwaves, damaging the effectiveness of the medium as a vehicle for advertising of any sort and possibly driving some viewers away.
But advocates say the selective use of shorter commercials can be an effective part of broader campaigns, as well as being the only economically feasible way for some low-budgeted brands to get network exposure.
"Our company was built on TV advertising," said James O'Connor, a spokesman for Alberto-Culver Co. in Melrose Park, Ill., which pushed for shorter commercials. "We don't want to turn off viewers."
The 30-second commercial has been the industry standard since the early 1970s, when Alberto-Culver and others challenged the domination of the 60-second spot.
Rajeev Batra, assistant professor of marketing at Columbia Business School in New York City, said there was economic justification for the move away from 60-second standard.
"What research showed was that the 30-second commercial was not half as effective as 60-second spots, but more than half as effective," he said.
That meant that for the same money, advertisers could produce two shorter ads and be more effective.
He said, however, there has been little authoritative work to date on the effectiveness of derivatives of a 30-second commercial.
But while the 30-second ad remains the industry norm, some sponsors have been testing new ways to use the time frame.
O'Connor said Alberto-Culver found the cost of advertising rose in recent years, despite lower rates of inflation. He said the average cost of a 30-second prime time commercial slot has risen 76% to $108,900 from $62,025 in 1980. Daytime rates have risen even more sharply, he said.
"It was becoming more difficult for some of our brands to afford television advertising," he said.
Alberto-Culver decided in 1982 to test 30-second commercials in which it advertised two products for 15 seconds apiece. Sales improved in the markets where the commercials were tested, O'Connor said, and brands that could not afford full 30-second spots got needed exposure by sharing the commercial.
The company began using the new ads, known within the industry as "split-30s," on network television in 1983. The networks required, however, that such commercials identify the parent company mid-way through the ad.
O'Connor said to fulfill that requirement, the company had to spend a second or two of commercial time making a transitional announcement such as "... and now another fine product from Alberto-Culver."
Alberto-Culver and CBS filed suit against each other over the requirement, but eventually settled out of court after the company worked out arrangements with the other two major networks, ABC and NBC.
CBS agreed to accept the "split-30" commercials without restriction for an "experimental period" extending through Sept. 30, 1985, when the network and Alberto-Culver plan to review the reaction of viewers and advertisers to the approach.
George Schweitzer, a CBS Broadcast Group vice president, said there had been "no staggering interest on the part of the advertisers" to use the approach in the wake of the agreement. "The same handful which started is still experimenting with them," he said.
Procter & Gamble Co., based in Cincinnati and ranked by the trade journal Advertising Age as the biggest national advertiser in 1984, does not use them for any of its 70-some consumer brands.
"We believe they would add to the commercial clutter and make TV a less effective medium," spokeswoman Carol Boyd said.
But other companies have used them, seldom to introduce a new product but frequently to remind viewers of products also featured in longer commercials.
Gillette Co., the Boston-based maker of grooming products, such as shaving cream, razors and deodorants, has employed the technique.
"For brands that are heavily advertised, we find it is a good way to build reach and frequency," said company spokeswoman Patricia Klarfeld. "For brands with a small budget, it is an economical way to get advertising on television."
She said Gillette is sensitive to the criticism that the approach "may contribute a bit to clutter and is unhappy with that," but she said it is too early to say whether clutter will occur.
Jeff Tolvin, director of business information for the ABC Broadcast Group, said only about 5% of the network's commercial spots are being used for split-30 commercials.
The only limitation the networks place on them are that only one split-30 may appear in each 90-second or two-minute commercial break.
Alan J. Gottesman, who follows the advertising business for the Wall Street investment firm L. F. Rothschild, Unterberg, Towbin, said he thinks the evolution toward shorter commercial messages is "inevitable."
"The number of brands that want to buy time is growing faster than the available units," he said.
John O'Toole, chairman of the advertising firm Foote, Cone & Belding in Chicago, said he finds marked similarities between the discussion of the split-30s and the discussions in the early 1970s that preceded the move away from the one-minute commercial standard.
But he said that in the absence of an authoritative study of the effectiveness of the shorter commercials and their impact on television in general, "I'm advocating temperance in the use of the split-30s and in the demands for free-standing 15s."
Most recent research, O'Toole said, has shown there has been "a constant diminishment" in viewers' ability to identify what advertisers appeared in any given commercial break. The biggest drop, he said, accompanied the adoption of the 30-second commercial standard.
"If the public can't remember who the advertiser was, it is difficult to conclude that that is the most effective use of advertising dollars," he said.