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Warwick Cairns, Strategist, The Effectiveness Partnership

The extraordinary rise of short-form video and what it means for advertising – and human nature.

Seven million years of human evolution have brought us to this.

13 seconds of home-recorded video in which a Filipina girl, living in Hawaii, lip-syncs to the thick Lancastrian tones of Blackpool grime. It’s the most-liked video in the entire world right now. And it’s part of a sea-change in the way we see and relate to the media. It’s adding billions to the value of some corporations. It’s wiping billions more from the value of others. And advertising will never be the same again.

Let’s rewind for a moment. Grime is a form of dance music. It was born in London out of US rap, by way of UK garage, Jamaican dancehall, jungle, and hip hop. Whatever. But the point is, it’s a type of music. Hold that thought in your mind. Other places got hold of that type of music and did their own versions of it. Faded Lancashire seaside town Blackpool was one of those places. In 2017 a Blackpool MC called Millie B recorded a diss track, a sort of musical takedown, aimed at a fellow MC, Soph Aspin. She recorded the video in the local branch of US chicken chain KFC. A year or so later a young Filipina-Hawaiian called Bella Poarch came across the video and decided to lip sync to a few seconds of it. She filmed herself on her phone and uploaded the result to the Chinese streaming site TikTok[1]. As you do.

684 million views later, and 56 million likes, Bella Poarch now has $2 million in the bank. She has advertising deals with Google, Prada and Tinder. She has her own recording contract.

The big cultural and media trend of the 2020s is the rise and rise of short-form content.

When TikTok launched in 2016 its videos were initially restricted to 15 seconds. This was extended to 60 seconds in 2017, to 3 minutes in 2021 and to 10 minutes in 2022. But the most popular videos are still very short – typically between 21 and 34 seconds. Similarly, when Twitter doubled its maximum character limit from 140 to 280[2], the average Tweet remained far shorter, at less than 50 characters[3].

People are choosing short-form out of choice, not out of necessity.

That ‘less is more’ formula has taken TikTok from nothing to a multi-billion corporation in just six years. No app has gone faster past a billion users, or established such a hold over so many people so quickly. In the US, one third of the entire population now uses it, and watches for an average of 80 minutes a day. That’s more than Facebook and Instagram combined. It’s taken so much share from market leader YouTube that it has prompted the launch of the rival YouTube Shorts format.

We’re seeing a slew of media reports right now about how this is a symptom of the shrinking of the human attention span, or a cause of it. Or both. The New York Times[4] and Time Magazine[5] both cited research claiming that in the years since 2000 the average attention span has fallen from 12 seconds to around 8. This is a second shorter, it is claimed, than the attention span of a goldfish.

From an advertising point of view, this has implications. Traditional TV advertising has always been shorter and snappier than the programming it is placed in. It might be 30 seconds in a programme lasting an hour. But if the ‘main event’ content now is just 13 or 14 seconds before moving on to the next video, what does that mean for any ads attached to them? Does it mean that to be effective in that environment, ads have to be even shorter and even more ‘viral?’ Possibly so.

And yet.

And yet, at the same time, we’re also seeing the rise of ultra long-form storytelling. The exact same people who endlessly scroll through 15-second shorts also sit down for box-set binge-watching marathons. They watch shows like Breaking Bad (62 episodes over 5 seasons) and its spin-off Better Call Saul (63 episodes over 6 seasons). Or else they embark on pizza-fuelled all-night gaming sessions. A popular game like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 will take an experienced gamer around 8 hours to cover the main objectives. It will take twice as long to reach 100% completion.[6]

So, are attention spans getting shorter, or are they getting longer? And does that mean that effective communication in advertising – and elsewhere – should be about getting your message in quicker and more ‘stickily?’ Or does it mean engaging in a slow-build relationship with audiences?

The writer Lee Child[7] talks about the relationship between ancient and modern in the way we live and think today. He says:

“Anthropologists like to conduct a thought experiment that goes like this: suppose you had a time machine and could go back and find an orphan baby and bring her home to the current day – how far back could you go and still have that kid grow up indistinguishable from anybody else, with an iPhone at age five and going on TikTok aged ten? The estimate right now is about 35,000 years. Which means that if we’ve been modern for 35,000 years, and ancient for seven million years, for every one year that we’ve been modern, we were ancient for two hundred. Even though we’re totally modern and live in the modern world, we carry around in the back of our brains a lot of influence from much earlier in our evolution.”

The 9-second attention span thing is often quoted as evidence of how modern humans are becoming different from earlier generations. But it’s also disputed. It was first cited in a 2015 report by Microsoft Canada, but a recent BBC investigation was unable to uncover the original data supporting it[8].

What does seem to be true, however, is that rather than shortening or lengthening our attention spans always and for everything, the huge oversupply of content and formats available to us today allows us to adapt our attention span according to need and interest.

We’re up here at the speed of thought, nodding along to Blackpool grime – or this week’s latest ten-second sensation – as modern culture endlessly evolves. But also we’re back there around the campfire, back with Odysseus, back with Gilgamesh, back with Beowulf – and back there with Walter White and Saul Goodman – as the tale of ambition and inevitable tragedy slowly unfolds.

I see a lot of advertising briefs these days that say they’re targeted at millennial and Gen Z audiences. Many of those briefs focus on how these new generations are different from their predecessors. And in some ways, they are. Perhaps in many ways. But they are also, in many other ways, exactly the same as all humans have been for the past 35,000 years. And for the 7 million before that.

Effective advertising recognises and navigates the fast-changing ripples and eddies of modern culture. That’s what gives it its relevance. But it also understands and gives voice to the deeper, older currents that flow beneath.

And that is what gives it its power to move us.

[1] https://www.stereogum.com/2097845/remember-blackpool-grime-it-now-soundtracks-the-most-popular-tiktok-of-all-time/news/

[2] https://techcrunch.com/2018/10/30/twitters-doubling-of-character-count-from-140-to-280-had-little-impact-on-length-of-tweets/

[3] https://www.theverge.com/2018/2/8/16990308/twitter-280-character-tweet-length

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/22/opinion/the-eight-second-attention-span.html?_r=3

[5] https://time.com/3858309/attention-spans-goldfish/

[6] https://howlongtobeat.com/game/109060

[7] Lee Child, The Hero

[8] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-38896790

First published by Warc.com on 17 February 2023