OK, before we do any­thing else, just watch this Audi Super­bowl Commercial:

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Now, let’s talk about why that’s such an amaz­ing piece of storytelling…

How Long Is a Moment?

There’s an apoc­ryphal quote attrib­uted to Steven Spiel­berg that talks about feature-length movies as “60 two-minute scenes” — with each scene capa­ble of cap­tur­ing and riv­et­ing the audience’s atten­tion. It’s a fab­u­lous way to think about filmic storytelling.

And, for adver­tis­ing, it works just as well on the small scale.

Psy­chol­o­gists and neu­ro­sci­en­tists tell us that a moment lasts 2.5 to 3 sec­onds, which is also roughly the same amount of time our brains can hold and process in work­ing mem­ory.

Hand­shakes last a moment. So do hugs. So does a glance into some­one else’s eyes. Go longer than that and it’s both more than a moment and more than a slight change!

A moment, then, is exactly how long a sin­gle, vivid men­tal image is held in the mind’s eye. Draw the imagery out too much longer than that and you’re either build­ing ten­sion or risk­ing the loss of your audience’s attention.

So for me, I don’t think of a 30-second spot as 30 sec­onds, I think of it as 10 great moments (or 20 moments for a 60 sec­ond spot).

That’s 10 men­tal images, each vivid and inter­est­ing enough to cap­ture the imag­i­na­tion, strung together to form a riv­et­ing mini-movie. For a TV spot it’s a real mini-movie, and for a Radio or Print Ad, its a movie in the mind. Either way, cre­at­ing one is a game of sequenc­ing men­tal images for max­i­mum impact.

All of which leaves only two questions:

  1. How do you pack as much wal­lop into each 3 sec­ond moment/image as possible
  2. How do you ensure that the moments all build into a mean­ing­ful story that ends with a bang

Pack­ing Wal­lop Into a 3-Second Moment

Obvi­ously, this is a big topic. Whole books could be (and have been) writ­ten about it. But here are the main tech­niques that come to my mind when I think about mak­ing each moment count:

And while all of these ele­ments are impor­tant (and can be found in the Audi ad) I can’t help but feel that the first one, the use of rit­ual, or what Terry Rossio describes as situation-based writ­ing, is the key to most of the oth­ers. It’s also the one that struck me the hard­est when I watched Audi’s 2013 Super­bowl Ad.

Watch the ad again and see if you can’t pick out every sin­gle rit­u­al­is­tic moment that whaps you in the face every three seconds:

  1. Look­ing in the mir­ror before a big event
  2. Mom see­ing you off before High School Prom
  3. Younger sibling/sister as truth teller
  4.  Dad hand­ing you the keys to the car
  5. The vis­ceral thrill of fir­ing up a high-performance V-8
  6. Pulling up to and glanc­ing over at the other car at a light
  7. Look­ing on with envy at the antics of the (limo-riding) in-group
  8. Burn­ing” the other car at a light
  9. Park­ing in the “Big Man’s” reserved spot to thumb your nose at authority
  10. Strut­ting into a build­ing while cooly flick­ing the car lock remote
  11. Enter­ing a hap­pen­ing dance/club/party
  12. Stalk­ing your way through a crowded dance floor/club/party.
  13. Spot­ting the hottest girl in the room
  14. Approach­ing a hot girl danc­ing in the midst of all her friends
  15. Tak­ing a chance at kiss­ing the pretty girl of your dreams
  16. The high school fight (over a girl)
  17. The post-fight black eye (worn with pride)
  18. The post-kiss sigh of ecstasy
  19. The “it was worth it” rebel yell
  20. The end­ing mes­sage: “Brav­ery. It’s what defines us.”

What you’ll notice, as you watch the film, is that the vast major­ity of those moments come and go before you ever have a chance to get bored with them.

The ad always enters these scenes late and then leaves early because the cre­ators chose each moment with care: they’re either arche­typal Amer­i­can growing-up rit­u­als or just every­day, everyone-has-them rit­u­als. No back­story or expla­na­tion required; we encounter them in media res and instantly know what’s going on.

Not only that, but many of these moments are fur­ther aug­mented by mul­ti­ple cam­era shots within the space of a sin­gle 3-second moment. These sto­ry­tellers are putting the ped­dle to the metal visu­ally, ’cause they ain’t tak­ing a chance with los­ing your attention.

Only two of those moments are allowed to linger and grow preg­nant with suspense:

  1. Spotting/walking up to the girl and kiss­ing the girl being one sequence, and
  2. The brew­ing, shocked, then angry reac­tion of the prom king.

Those sequences grow past a sin­gle moment because they gain in sus­pense and inter­est as they move past three sec­onds in length.

He kisses her for more than a moment, which sends your mind off spin­ning: How long is he going to kiss her? Is she going to slap him? No, holy crap, she’s kiss­ing him back! Shit, her date sees him, he’s about to deck him, isn’t he?

The other thing about these par­tic­u­lar moments is that they’re the oblig­a­tory scenes in the story.

Once the incit­ing inci­dent kicks off —- once you find out the kid is going to prom alone — the ques­tion arises as to what he’s going to do about it. What’s he going to do at prom when he gets there? Yeah, he’s got a cool car, but what’s he going to do after he parks it and shows up at prom all alone?  These moments answer that ques­tion, and so they deserve to play out over more than just a few seconds.

And this idea of set-up and pay-off brings us to…

Story Arc — Con­nect­ing Moments Together Meaningfully

The coun­ter­point to Spielberg’s blurb on “60 two-minute scenes” is his quote on story structure:

Peo­ple have for­got­ten how to tell a story. Sto­ries don’t have a mid­dle or an end any more. They usu­ally have a begin­ning that never stops beginning.”

So it’s not only about indi­vid­ual scenes — they still have to be con­nected in a way that makes a point.

Obvi­ously, this is a HUGE topic that many of the great­est minds in his­tory have tack­led. So by all means, go read what Aris­to­tle had to say on the sub­ject. Go read McKee’s Story and all the other modern-day story struc­ture gurus.

But also, let’s maybe bring this down to the level of a blog post and talk about some quick and dirty how-to’s. And with that in mind, here’s what I’ve got for ya:

And again, for me, the first ele­ment is key. If you’re not con­nect­ing one moment to the next through cau­sa­tion or upset, then what’s the point?  Either you’re pay­ing off the promise of a pre­vi­ous moment with a “there­fore,” or you’re throw­ing the audi­ence off-guard by sub­vert­ing their expec­ta­tions with a “but then.”

If you’re not doing one of those two things, you’re prob­a­bly wast­ing time and los­ing the audience’s attention.

What Makes Great The­atre and Holds Attention

Ulti­mately, most ads suck because peo­ple think they’re mak­ing ads, and are will­ing to accept ads that sound like ads. They think ads don’t have to grab your atten­tion and hold your inter­est like a great movie or TV show or radio drama.

They are breath­tak­ingly, spec­tac­u­larly wrong.

This is explained bril­liantly over at the Sell! Sell! Blog [Empha­sis Mine]:

Do You Only Know How To Make Ads?

The things that make a print advert work are the same things that make an edi­to­r­ial lay­out, or piece of printed art strong. The things that make a TV com­mer­cial great are the same things that make a TV pro­gramme, film or piece of video art great. The cru­cial dif­fer­ence being that, obvi­ously, the ulti­mate job of the com­mer­cial work is to meet its brief; sell a prod­uct, change your opin­ion about some­thing, etc. But still, the things that make it work in the end are the same craft skills that make other things strong in that media.

The prob­lem comes when you for­get this, and you think about mak­ing adverts. Peo­ple tend to do things to adverts that they wouldn’t do to an edi­to­r­ial piece of design, or to a film. But unfor­tu­nately ads don’t get processed dif­fer­ently by peo­ple. Either it’s good or it isn’t good. There are no excuses just because it’s an ad. But still, peo­ple try to cram in way too much infor­ma­tion, over-the-top brand­ing, social media logos, and other guff, because it’s an ad.

Some­times it makes you think that peo­ple, clients and agency alike, have for­got­ten how to make inter­est­ing things that also hap­pen to be great ads, and they only know how to make things that look and sound like adverts.”

So the ques­tion you ought to be left with is: does your ad guy just make ads that sound like ads, or is he a mas­ter at grab­bing and guid­ing people’s atten­tion and desires?

Could your copy­writer have scripted any­thing half as good as that Audi Ad?

P.S. Spe­cial shout out to my col­league Tim Miles for inspir­ing me to dis­sect this ad and answer exactly why I like it as much as I do.


  1. ken Brand on 01.31.2013

    Thanks Chris. This stuff is genius and for those of us who aren’t, your break­down helps us build-our-better own. Thanks man. This is going into the Ever­note Uni­ver­sal Laws folder. Cheers.

  2. Jeff on 01.31.2013

    Thanks, Ken — but my name is Jeff : )

  3. Ruthi Backenroth on 02.01.2013

    The 3 sec­ond moments you speak of hap­pen in real life all the time and are the cat­a­lysts for real changes in a person’s thought pat­terns, in his under­stand­ing of his world, and his/her actions.

    In fact chronic pain (phys­i­cal and emo­tional) are caused because of the uncom­fort­able moments that remain with the per­son. As an EFT prac­ti­tioner a light­bulb went on in my head as I read this post. I am the per­son who clears the 3 sec­ond moments when they are painful. Thank you for help­ing me to under­stand the power of a pithy ad.
    Ruthi Backenroth

  4. Steve Sorenson on 02.01.2013

    Pow­er­fully writ­ten blog post. This could be used as a basis for any great ad writ­ing course. Tim set the chal­lenge and you hit a grand slam. Thanks for the edu­ca­tion. Steve

  5. Grimey on 02.01.2013

    Chris, Ken, Billy Bob … or what­ever you go by these days Jeff …

    That was a Super­taco blog — when you keep pil­ing stuff on and when you pick it up the con­tents are drip­ping on your fin­gers and plop­ping onto your plate … a mini course in writ­ing anything.

    The dis­sec­tion … the “20 moments” … that was the gooey good­ness in the mid­dle of the blog.

    A STORY is a kind of JOURNEY and in the telling a story know­ing WHERE you are going and WHY gives you immense lat­i­tude in HOW to arrive at the DESTINATION.

    My bet is the writer of this ad took Roy William’s advice and began with the most impor­tant part of the ad first … the Pay­off … he began with the END … the “20th” moment … “Brav­ery. It’s what defines us.” And that tag line defined the ad and gave the writer a des­ti­na­tion to take us to.

    Thanks for the Super­taco Jeff, I’m still lick­ing stuff off my fingers.


  6. Nancy on 02.01.2013

    Hi Jeff — And you did.

    Help me find out why I’m not get­ting Tim Miles posts any­more. I sent a note but am aware that he only gets the ones most impor­tant to his busi­ness devel­op­ment. I’m just a gal who has a son with the bright­ness of his son who never has a bad day.

    See you at the Wiz in a cou­ple months. NN

  7. Holly Buchanan on 02.02.2013

    Wow — friggen bril­liant. I had so many “aha” mon­ents while read­ing this. I love the “enter late and leave early”. I am a huge fan of “leave early” so the audi­ence is forced to “imag­ine” the most impor­tant scene (the boyfriend punch­ing out the Audi guy.)

    I loved that this com­mer­cial started with the guy going to the prom alone instead of the cliche pick­ing up the girl and pin­ning the cor­sage on her.

    I won­der what this com­mer­cial would look like with a high school girl as the hero? Hmmmm.….may have to explore that.

    Thanks Jeff — excel­lent stuff!
    Holly Buchanan´s last blog post ..Why Volkswagen’s 2013 Super Bowl Ad MIsses the Mark, Espe­cially With Women

  8. Andrew Button on 06.21.2013

    Great arti­cle. I par­tic­u­larly like “what makes great copy is the same as what makes great art.” So many copy­writ­ers out there will tell you “beauty is not a fac­tor in per­sua­sion,” but it’s just dead wrong. Not only do peo­ple pay more atten­tion to some­thing art­ful than to some­thing bland, they’re also more likely to react pos­i­tively to it. And since when are sales­man­ship and artistry mutu­ally exclu­sive?
    Andrew Button´s last blog post ..Copy­writ­ing As A Career Part 3: Build­ing Your Client Base

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