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What Movie Trailers Tell Us About Advertising’s Evolution

This article first appeared in iMedia on October 19, 2016

An intriguing trend is taking hold of the online movie trailers we’ve grown accustomed to watching and sharing on social media. While trailers have always tried to pull viewers in with apocalyptic explosions, swelling music, and tear-jerking triumphs, studios are testing a new “grab you” tool. Several 2016 movies like “Passengers,” “Loving,” and “Fist Fight” are adding a short 5- to 10-second “pre-trailer.” These fast and short previews seem tailor-made for today’s quick-scrolling, ad-skipping, media environment. While these pre-trailers are an interesting tactic in their own right, what’s even more interesting is what they tell us about the evolution of brand storytelling.

Will we see marketers in other verticals running ads that preview their ads?

The most obvious benefit of the pre-trailer tactic is that it allows movie trailers to take advantage of today’s fragmented digital environment. While advertisers like to think viewers are always paying attention, in reality, consumers may only see a trailer with the sound off as they scroll through their Facebook or Twitter feed. As Adweek noted in a recent article on the pre-trailer phenomenon, “It’s part of a larger trend in the last year or so to present a shortened version of the trailer with subtitles (to allow for how most social videos, at least for the moment, autoplay with no sound) to get people’s attention and encourage viewing of the full video.”

At the same time, the pre-trailer is also an opportunity to take the art of great storytelling in new directions. Despite repeated claims to the contrary, full-length movie trailers –like the 30- or 60-second TV spot — aren’t going away. These formats have persisted because they’re effective, and they remain the workhorse of successful creative campaigns. Take a look at the performance of the full-length trailers for “Passenger” and “Fist Fight,” each of which has collected millions of views, as evidence of the format’s continued success. Instead, the pre-trailer merely adds an extra “weapon” to the studio’s arsenal, allowing their trailer to be grabbed faster, by more people. As Adweek explains in the article noted above, “Getting multiple hits off ancillary content is a strong tactic that increases the ROI of the big beats of a campaign.”

Similarly, the 30-second ad remains an essential piece of brand marketing that achieves reach and frequency unmatched by any other format. Brands continue to make huge investments in standard ad lengths, which still have the capacity to capture the interest of viewers and tell a compelling story with sight sound and motion. Ad units that are customized for publishers like Vine or Snapchat create high levels of engagement, but simply don’t provide the scale that big brand marketers need. Are there lessons to be taken from this new studio trend for all marketers? I think so.

Pre-trailers are symbolic of the evolving interaction now occurring between TV, video and social that only seems to get more interconnected every day. In today’s world of blurred lines between TV and video, advertisers really can “have their cake and eat it too.” Running a pre-trailer changes little about the trailer itself. Advertisers can still tap into the scalability offered by the traditional movie trailer format, while easily adapting it for other formats with minimal incremental cost or production effort. Meanwhile this shorter “snippet” is also optimized for today’s online content environment, where shorter attention spans are the norm and mobile and social media dominate how creative is consumed and shared.

Too often, the proliferating range of viewing devices, ad formats, and publishing platforms can make the advertising industry and media buying seem like a “winner take all” battle. But as the pre-trailer makes clear, opportunities exist for creative innovation to work together with longstanding, proven techniques. Embracing this approach not only lifts the fortunes of all advertising industry participants, from vendors to agencies to platforms, it ultimately results in a better experience for the viewer as well.