News & Views

Opinion / The Five Second Rule

by Patrick Jeffrey

One of the most hated and ineffective advertising mediums of them all – the pre-roll – could just help us nail creative problems in the future

I’m going to start by setting myself an artificial constraint: this post will be less than 800 words long. I could witter on for ages – after all, there are no word restrictions on the web – but doing this would result in a 1% chance of anyone actually reading it.  

The importance of imposing constraints on any piece of work – be it designing a skyscraper, writing an article or scripting a branded content series  – is well documented. In essence, the most creative ideas tend to come from people exploring ways to break free of the tight restrictions placed upon them by time, expertise, tradition, money or even media channel. As Joachim Kreuger describes in Psychology Today: ‘If constraint is the box, creativity is the step out of it. Without the box, there is nothing to step out of.’

Perhaps the most famous example of creative thinking within extreme constraints is Ernest Hemingway’s feat of literary genius. When asked by friends to tell a moving story in just six words he responded with: For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Another celebrated creative thinker, the architect Frank Gehry, once explained that his biggest ever challenge was designing a house with no constraints: ‘I had a horrible time with it,’ he said in Great Work. ‘I had to look in the mirror a lot. "Who am I? Why am I doing this?" It’s better to have some problem to work on. I think we turn those constraints into action.’ Without the box, Gehry struggled to get his mind focused. He had choice paralysis.

On a roll

The often-maligned YouTube pre-roll is the best example of how effective the ad industry can be when working within tight restraints. Pre-rolls are a pretty hard gig – capture someone’s imagination in five seconds while convincing them to break with habit and not click that ‘skip’ button. All advertising, of course, competes for people’s attention, but few channels give you less to work with – or more constraints – than the pre-roll.

Unsurprisingly, this has created a deluge of poor results and ineffective messages. One attitude has been to simply seed a TVC as a pre-roll, assuming that people will want to watch it (hint: they never, ever do). A much better response is to take these constraints and creatively work around them.

Take Mountain Dew. Partnering with BBDO Guerrero in the Philippines, they turned those annoying five-seconds into a series of playable 8-bit games, and generated a 12-fold increase in engagement.


The Australian Federal Police used the five-second space for good, posting photos of people that were missing. The campaign, by VML Australia and Google, used geo-targeting to ensure that the pre-rolls were only shown to people in relevant areas. As a result, 238 viewers came forward and provided crucial information that helped the police in their search.

And let’s not forget that a pre-roll also scooped the Film Grand Prix at last year’s Cannes Lions. When we interviewed The Martin Agency, who dreamt up Geico’s Unskippable Pre-Roll, they told us: ‘One of the things we noticed about pre-roll was that so much of it is bad and forgettable because it wasn’t made to be there.’ 

Mobile rules

As the way people view content continues to evolve, the need to work within tighter and tighter constraints is becoming ever more important. Take mobile video: increasing data speeds and mobile screen sizes, combined with new livestreaming opportunities, have created a nuclear surge in popularity. Video views on Facebook doubled last year – from 4 billion to more than 8 billion per day, with 47% of these views coming from mobile.

As with the pre-roll, brands looking to take advantage of this boon need to recognise the constraints of the platform. Content viewed on mobile must fit the small screen, should probably be adapted for vertical viewing and should make sense in a newsfeed, where often there is no sound. But they also need to set their own, artificial constraints. Social media analytics company Locowise, for example, found that on average people watch only one third of a Facebook video. It advises brands to force themselves to create videos that are ‘relevant, interesting and as short as possible. Preferably under 30 seconds. Under 20 seconds would be even better.’

So our five second rule is this: embrace the constraints. Think about the natural constraints of the medium. Figure out the artificial constraints that you can impose upon it. And, after you’ve done all of that, ensure you’re not susceptible to Attention Overestimation Disorder.

Now, (after some heavy editing), I’m finished. With one word to...