Facebook’s 6-Second Ads: How Zuckerberg is reinventing print & out-of-home advertising

Our high-tech Wizards have already invented much of the magic imagined by J.K. Rowling—the magic map used by Harry now looks strikingly similar to the map on our Uber app. Many in advertising think Zuckerberg invented a magical form of Television. He didn’t. He reinvented Print and Out-of-Home advertising.

 In the magic world of Harry Potter a printed newspaper may look familiar—but the pictures move as you read it on your train ride to Hogwarts. And you go past the page, or you choose to read on.

Sound familiar, Facebookers?

Facebook has now introduced the six-second ad.

Perhaps this is because advertisers are feeling a bit cheated paying for 30-seconds, but the reader only watches the first three.

From a psychological perspective, the new six-second format is going to work more like a print ad than a television ad.

My view is that Facebook, like traditional print, is a “lean-forward” medium, a “high-involvement” medium. In the parlance of Danny Kahneman, author of the book Thinking Fast and Slow, the dominant form of processing is System 2, or the slow system that engages our conscious mind.

In contrast, television is a “lean-back” medium, a “low-involvement” medium. Television works on the fast System 1 processor, our default when we want to turn off our brain and couch potato after a hard day’s work. This is the system that wants less cognitive information, not more. It’s the one that connects the dots through the processes of associative memory—though I prefer his description of System 1 as the one designed “for leaping to conclusions.” This is good news for advertisers without much rational information to convey.

From my own research on how engagement with an ad gets converted into a brand memory, I’d say six seconds is just the right amount of time for a the Potter and Facebook print medium with moving pictures. Six seconds is the basic unit of a meaningful moment of emotionally-charged communication. In television, there are four to five such moments in an average, but effective, thirty second ad.

Six seconds is only one pearl in the necklace of meaningful moments that we call a “story.” It is not long enough (with a few exceptions I’ll describe below) to effectively tell a story. Fortunately, print advertising can make use of other forms of advertising than storytelling to build a brand. Remember, in the chicken/egg dilemma, the answer is easy: brands existed before television.

If you flip through the any award-show book from the golden age of print advertising (flipping is a Muggle equivalent of scrolling down a FB timeline) you’ll see that many of the winning ads make use of analogy or metaphor, not storytelling.

That’s because one of the chief mechanisms of the semantic memory system, which I call “Head”, is metaphor generation, or categorization—the act of identifying that “this” is like “that.” Douglas Hofstadter, one of the pioneers of AI, writes in his recent book Surfaces and Essences, that analogy-making is to thinking as the beating heart is to the other seeming magic tricks the body constantly accomplishes.

One trick in creating an effective six-second Facebook ad is to match the meaning, or achieve congruence, in what you are communicating in the “headline” (System 2) and what you are communicating in the six-second video (System 1). We know this from proprietary flash-communication research that we do for Ameritest clients, but I’ll be running some of my own experiments so that we can share this at a conference later this year.

One pitfall with traditional print is that frequently readers fail to match the meanings of the headline and visual. That’s because System 1, the fast system, almost always look at the picture before the slow System 2 reads the headline.

People project all sorts of unintended meanings onto pictures. One trick to creating an effective ad is to get the reader to register a context before they look at the picture. In Facebook, this can be the sender—who is posting this message for me to see? This would be the equivalent of getting a reader to see a category-cue first in a print ad. Perceptually, this helps frame the visuals and communicate the intended meaning by registering the sender of the message.

Facebook creates this opportunity by forcing you to scroll down, so that the one who is posting, along with the headline or copy, will come into view before you get a chance to see the image.

As the human mind is programmed to give dominance of attention to images, this advantage of starting with the context of a sender is not a small one. Scrolling can take place very quickly; Facebook advertisers must get the viewer to slow down. Meaning of the visuals can then be even further enhanced with this hierarchy of information. Given context by the sender, and stopped by visuals, we may pause to read the post itself, giving the brand the coveted opportunity to further engage.

And if you slow down to look at the ad and read the post, Facebook’s AI knows that the reader’s System 2 is engaged. This is one of the main drivers of Facebook’s algorithms for serving up ads, and it is the main feedback mechanism for teaching the AI what you are interested in seeing.

What about brand storytelling—can it be done with a six second ad unit?

One example of how that problem can be solved can be found as far back the 1920’s, when the country was first crisscrossed with paved highways. Remember that scrolling down a Facebook timeline is like driving down a roadway of your life.

Burma Shave created a campaign, which delivered pearls of advertising spaced over the course of a mile or so, far enough apart for System 2 to read, while System 1 drove the car:

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As a child riding in the backseat of my parents’ car in the Fifties, I still remember looking forward to these memorable jingles with great anticipation, as I do some of the better ad campaigns today. The entire library of roadside verse can be found here.

So, Facebook itself can solve the problem of storytelling in six second units by allowing advertisers to buy six-second units in sequence, spaced with the length of a single trip down the timeline.

“Oh,” the Muggle asks, “Then what about re-inventing television?”

I can see the sparks flying from the wands of the wizards hard at work in castles in Seattle like Valve and Magic Leap, working on virtual reality and augmented reality tele-presence. Stay tuned, Muggle and wizard, alike. Stay tuned.

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