The Six-Second Rule

 Michael Bali

Michael Bali / Copywriter

In January, YouTube used the Sundance Film Festival to promote its new, unskippable six-second ads, and in February announced they will remove unskippable 30-second ads by 2018. In June, Facebook announced they are partnering with some advertisers to explore these shorter ads; Fox confirmed that they too are adopting the format shortly thereafter. With the duopoly, and now Fox, integrating six-second ads into their schedules, advertisers and audiences will need to re-learn the power of short stories, flash fiction, and advertising’s newest old trend, the haiku.

YouTube’s description of the new format as “little haikus of video ads” immediately promotes the concept, central to traditional haiku, of a simple juxtaposition of two ideas to create a stronger whole. While several advertisers have lamented the short video form – what can we possibly do in only six seconds? – the answer is readily apparent in the sheer number of creative ideas on display at Sundance. A personal highlight: this warning of the Los Angeles drought, conveyed through imagery and music alone.

We’ve previously examined the difference between System 1 and 2 decision-making. System 1 is quick, automatic, based on our natural instincts, and constantly active. System 2 is logical, rational, and conscious. Despite what we’d like to believe, System 1 makes most of our decisions. So it’s important to note that, contrary to popular wisdom, the jury is still out on whether attention spans are actually “decreasing.” Instead, the six-second limit has grown because people are increasingly annoyed by most long-form unskippable ads online; the worry over similar budgets being applied to ads that are half or a fifth of the usual length should be answered by this necessity alone. A strong idea, even if only presented for six seconds, will still lead to System 1 decision-making.

The larger concern is the transition from the six-second ad online to the six-second ad on TV, with several mainstream commentators questioning whether providers would accommodate them, or conversely whether advertisers would pay for the slots. But these ads aren’t really “bumper” ads as we’ve known them, and just as we can’t simply slice a 30- or 15-second down to size, we also can’t simply assume advertisers won’t pay for the space. If the format becomes standardized online, there’s every possibility TV would have to accommodate them too.


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