News & Views

Opinion / Four guesses about six-second ads

by James Swift

(Photo by Veri Ivanova on Unsplash)

Trevor Beattie – the man behind Wonderbra’s famous ‘Hello Boys’ poster and French Connection's FCUK slogan – called it back in 2013. Well, almost. Speaking to the Guardian at Advertising Week Europe, the BMB co-founder said:

‘I'm announcing the death of the 30-second TV ad – it is too long, it is bullshit. Five seconds is the right length...’

Alas, it seems that the media has judged six-seconds (the format championed by YouTube) the right length for an ad in the post attention-span age. But otherwise Beattie’s proclamation looks increasingly prescient.

Earlier this month Fox experimented with six-second ad slots in its broadcast coverage of the Teen Choice Awards, selling them for as much as $75,000 a pop, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, reportedly told investors in July that the social media network was developing six-second video ads, too. And here is Google extolling the virtues of bumper ads as a means to ‘drive upper-funnel goals like ad recall and awareness’.

It doesn’t matter if you resist the format as the death knell of brand story-telling or see it as an exciting new challenge, six-second ads are on the march across any channel that supports video.

But how will shorter slots influence the ads that fill them? Predictions are a mug’s game, especially when it comes to second-guessing creative endeavours. But advertising trade journalism is not all steak at The Ivy and yachts on the Riviera. It’s just mostly those things. Occasionally you’ve got to put your neck on the block and justify your obscene privilege, and my time has come. Here’s a few trends I think we may see among six-second ads.

1) Self-awareness
If it’s done well and done early, referencing a format within an ad can be incredibly effective. Geico’s Unskippable pre-roll ads on YouTube, for example, racked up more than 14 million views. The success of the campaign, says The Martin Agency’s planning director Christie Chaffee, was down to a simple insight: ‘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’. But here’s another prediction: people will tire of this technique quickly.

 More stereotypes
In a 2014 TV interview director Michel Gondry said about his time spent making ads, something along the lines of: ‘you have to deliver a message in such a short time that you have to resort to stereotypes’. This does not change the fact that harmful depictions of groups of people have no place in advertising or society. Brands that ignore (or are ignorant of) the dropping tolerance for insensitive pigeonholing do so at their peril. Nonetheless, telling a story in 30-seconds without resorting to some form of cultural shorthand to establish character is hard; doing it within six seconds will be harder.

The above-mentioned difficulty can be avoided by taking a running jump in a opposite direction and creating something unabashedly surreal. Can’t tell a story in six-seconds? Show me something bat-shit crazy that doesn’t even attempt to make sense and I won’t care. The classic Tango ads weren't six-seconds long, but they probably could have been.


4) Borrowed Imagery
Giphy, the online gif platform, has more than 100 millions users who send 1 billion gifs per day. The beauty of the gif medium – and the reason it’s so popular – is that it allows people to express obscure or complex emotions in a couple of seconds using an image from popular culture. Six-second ads could find success in the same way (and avoid generic stereotypes) by borrowing clips from films, TV etc. that everyone already understands to get their message across. Advertisers might even still have time left over, for disclaimers and such like (speaking of, will no time for disclaimers mean fewer complex offers?).


If none of these predictions sound like good strategy to you, please remember to give them the appropriate weight of advice from someone who has never made an ad in his life but has spent an inordinate amount of time watching them. Also, be grateful that Trevor Beattie wasn’t put in charge of the short-form revolution. This way you have a whole extra second to play with.