Subjective time, as opposed to clock time, is fundamental to our experience of film or video and, by extension, television advertising. The elements of a commercial may be the pictures and the words that you can lay out on a storyboard, but the audience experiences a commercial as movement, ideas and images that arrive in unfolding sequences and combinations that surprise, involve, and persuade. The intuitive decision-making that shapes the rhythm and tempo of the audience experience is the creative performance art of the editing room.

Someone once described the art of editing a film as the simple process of cutting out the boring bits from life. There is more to it than that, of course, as can be seen in the wide range of film structures that have been created over the years. Narrative re-arranges time, with cuts, camera movement, close-ups, flashbacks and flash-forwards in order to manipulate audience attention, memory and anticipation in the service of dramatic storytelling. Montage destroys time, juxtaposing and fusing disparate images together to create new insights into the deep connectivity of reality.

The evolution of film technique is the story of endless experimentation with how movies can be edited to create new effects with time. George Lukas set the tempo for modern mainstream moviemaking with the fast-cut action of Star Wars. A generation earlier, Alfred Hitchcock pushed the envelope in the other direction by putting together the full- length feature film Rope with a seamless series of ten-minute camera shots. The movie Koyaanisqatsi by Godfrey Reggio employed time-lapse photography at various speeds to create the cinematic equivalent of a symphony.

Our emotions as an audience are inextricably tied to our sense of the passage of time in the movie. Good movies “fly by.” Bad movies “drag on.” In a dramatic scene, a slowing down of time or slow motion, might be used to heighten our emotional tension as in the climatic football touchdown scene in the recent hit Invincible. We still laugh at the staccato visual humor of Charlie Chaplin or the Keystone Cops running at hyper-speed in classic chase scenes. And in a typical ironic inversion, Andy Warhol plays a trick on our conventional expectations with his art film Sleep by boring us with a movie presented in normal clock time rather than movie time.

The complex relationship between our sense of time and our sense of changing events and the perceived rate of information flow has been commented on recently by one of the founders of modern chaos theory and complexity science, Benoit Mandlebrot. He describes the role of “market time” in the behavior of financial markets:

“On occasion, trading is fast. Scores of news item are flitting across the electronic “crawl” on the bottom of the screen. Colleagues are waving and shouting all around. Phones are ringing. Customers are zapping electronic orders. The volume of trades is climbing and prices are flying by. On such days are fortunes won or lost. Time flies.

“Then there are the slow times. No news, only tired reports from the in-house financial analysts to chew over. The customer seems to be on holiday. Trading is thin. Prices are quiet. No big money to be made here; might as well go for a long lunch. Time hangs heavy.

“Just handy metaphors? Not at all: They are at the heart of how a financial market really works. Imagine for a moment that you could take the tape—The New York Stock Exchange’s ticket, or the Reuters record of currency quotes—and play it fast or slow, like a videocassette tape. Run it slowly when prices are flying; there is so much action packed into the tape that you can only see it all by liberal use of the ‘pause’ and‘review’ buttons. Speed it up during the boring parts, when there is little new information to digest. This is, it turns out, exactly how my current and best mathematical simulations of the market work. Their engine is a ‘multi-fractal’ process: It takes normal clock time, deforms it into a unique form of ‘trading time,’ and then generates a price chart from it all.”

An altered sense of time, as we will see below, is also a characteristic of effective television commercials. To understand why, we first need to explain what’s unique about our approach to studying the temporal flow of audience response to television ads.

Moment-by-Moment Measurement Tools

Over the years a number of research techniques have been developed to get “inside” the (e.g.) 30-second time frame of a TV commercial for the purpose of providing diagnostic insight into the internal structures that distinguish effective from ineffective ads.


For example, physiological measures of various kinds—brain waves, facial response, and more recently new brain imaging techniques—have been used in an attempt to identify the biological basis of ad effectiveness. These approaches have particular appeal because of their promise of providing grounding in “hard” science being done on how the brain works for the “soft” science of advertising research. Because these approaches are linked to the rhythms of various physiological processes they also promise to provide insights into the role that our various internal, biological clocks might play in synchronizing the processing of advertising.

Two other more mainstream moment-by-moment diagnostic tools (widely used both online and offline) is the dial meter, such as the Millward Brown Interest Trace™, and the Ameritest Picture Sorts®. Dial meters have been around for a long time and have been used on a variety of research problems, from taking the pulse of voter response to presidential debates to rating audience response to movie endings.

Picture sorts are a more recent innovation and have mainly been used to study consumer response to rough and finished TV ads, though a recent Admap article has shown how they can be used to research branded entertainment, in a study of the famous BMW internet movies. Two of the proprietary Ameritest picture sorts are of interest here: (1) the Flow of Attention®, which asks respondents to sort images from the commercial into two groups—those they remember seeing and those they don’t; and (2) the Flow of Emotion®, which asks respondents to sort those same images onto a five-category scale based on how they were “feeling” as they watched the image in the ad.

Recent studies conducted for the Advertising Research Foundation have shown that the measures produced by the dial meter approach are not at all correlated with the measures produced by the picture sorts approach. In other words, these two approaches to getting inside the advertising produce completely different kinds of insights. As we will see shortly, these differences are fundamentally tied to differences in how time is measured by the two systems.

In general, there are four reasons why dial meters and picture sorts produce system-atically different results.

First, picture sorts deconstruct the visual channel of communication as a separate analysis from the audio (a companion technique, copy sorts deals with the verbal content of the ad), while dial meters track the combined audio/visual experience. Because of this difference, we expected a partial correlation between picture sorts and dial meters, not a total lack of correlation between the two.

Second, dial meters contain an uncertainty range around which moment is actually being measured because of differences in respondent response times. For example, the physical reaction times of younger respondents used to playing video games are likely to be much faster than the reaction times of older respondents. This reaction time is more than just the time it takes for a signal to move from the brain to the hand, because, as current neuroscience research has shown, there is also a time delay that occurs between perception itself and conscious thought.

Unless you calibrate the dial meter tool by normalizing the data to each individual’s reaction time the aggregate sample data will spread the response data over many measurement intervals. In contrast, the picture sort measurement is anchored in discrete still images, frozen moments of time, taken from the commercial itself. There is absolutely no uncertainty about which moment is being measured. As a result, dial meter data can be thought of as “analog” while picture sort data can be thought of as “digital” information.

Perhaps more significantly, respondents provide feedback at a much slower rate of signaling than the pace of information flowing through the commercial. The average thirty-second commercial contains over thirteen cuts, representing thirteen distinct decisions by the director in the editing room regarding the cutting and timing of the film. It would be extremely rare to see a respondent casting thirteen distinct “votes” about the different shots in one thirty-second commercial. The result is that dial meters provide a more coarse-grained level of information than provided by picture sorts. This coarsening effect can be seen when comparing the curves produced by the two approaches side by side: with dial meter data the trace curves tend to be smoothed out so much that only large scale features can be seen in audience response to the ads compared to the more sensitive picture sort data. As we will see shortly, this micro level of detail turns out to be quite valuable in terms of predicting commercial performance.

Third, dial meters record respondent reactions while they are watching the ad; but picture sorts are used by respondents to reconstruct the experience after the viewing. At first glance, this appears to be an argument for the traditional dial meter measurements as the ones being taken in “real time.” Many researchers have argued, however, that by making the respondent artificially self-conscious and critical during the viewing experience, dial meters keep the respondent from “entering into the commercial experience.” By keeping the viewer “outside” the ad the dial meter actually transforms the point-of-view of the measurement, from an “advertising experience” into a “research experience.”

Indeed, one of the dimensions of the experience that may be altered or distorted by the intrusion of dial meters is the respondent’s sense of film time. It’s the difference between performing a factory work task normally and performing the task when an efficiency expert is testing you with a stopwatch.

The fourth reason why the two measurement tools produce different results is that the frame of reference for measurement provided by dial meters is “clock time”, while the frame of reference for the picture sorts measurements is the “subjective time” of the commercial experience. To explain this concept, we build on the ideas of those who suggest that our subjective experience of time is tied to the rate of information flow that we perceive.

Fast-cut editing of a commercial is a way of “speeding” through information. A useful metaphor for visualizing this is to think of your television set as the windshield of your car as you view the road ahead. If you speed up, the scenery in your windshield changes very fast. Slow down and the scenery changes more slowly. One of the questions that we occasionally get asked is “What is the ‘speed limit’ for editing film?” The real answer is that it depends on what you’re trying to do.

If you are trying to communicate a single, pure idea or feeling you can fix it on your horizon and with a tunnel-vision focus of attention speed toward it as fast as you like. That’s a montage commercial. If you are trying to communicate multiple ideas or sales messages, then you can slow down, so that you can look around and take in these ideas from the passing countryside. The speed limit of a commercial is set by the complexity of the strategic concept being communicated.

To measure the rate of information flowing through a commercial you could, as before, simply count the number of shots in the ad. However, as the Hitchcock example illustrates, camera shots can last a relatively long time so that as the action unfolds, the visual information present in the beginning of the shot might be perceptibly different from that in the middle or at the end of the shot. For that reason the number of pictures used in a picture sorting deck that represent an ad’s visual information content is usually greater than the number of shots or cuts. Moreover, the number varies as a function of the sequential visual complexity of the ad. A typical sorting deck might contain from ten to forty pictures for a thirty-second commercial.


Why would describing the performance of an ad based on the rate of information flow produce different results than a procedure based on clock time? To answer this, let’s return to the car metaphor. Using a dial meter is like having an observer standing on the side of the road measuring the performance of a racecar with a stop watch. In contrast, the picture sort takes the point of view of the driver experiencing the speed and acceleration of the machine. While both approaches may tell you something useful about the performance of the car, they are likely to produce very different descriptions of the driving experience.

An Experiment with the Flow of Subjective Time

Time always seems shorter when we are doing anything at all than when doing nothing. One of the reasons we watch television is simply to pass the time. When television programming content is more interesting or engaging, time moves more quickly. So, we might also expect that the viewers’ sense of time would be affected when watching commercials, with the duration of interesting commercials seeming to be shorter than that of boring commercials.

To investigate the relationship between a viewer’s internal sense of time and commercial performance we recently conducted an experiment with 28 television commercials tested among a nationally representative sample of 2171 consumers. These were new 30-second commercials from 15 different fast food restaurants, tested within two weeks of airing on national television. We ran the commercials through the standardized interview of our online testing system—with one new rating statement to get at the perceived duration of these ads: “The commercial went by fast.”

The relationship between ratings of “fast” and standard Ameritest commercial performance scores is shown in Table 1. The findings are statistically significant and important. Commercials that are perceived to be “fast” are more attention-getting—38% versus 30%—a difference with 99% confidence given this sample size. Moreover, the commercials that are perceived to be “fast” are more motivating—52% versus 43%.

You’ll also notice that the branding scores also move in the same direction, 34% versus 27%, suggesting that commercial speed is not a barrier to branding if the ad is well put together.

Let’s see why. In Table 2 you can use the picture sort variables to see the relationship between how the images from these commercials are being processed and the audience’s perception of time.

Interestingly, there is no relationship to the first picture sort variable, the “objective” measure of visual complexity, which is the number of pictures in the sorting deck. But the number of picture-bits of information in a commercial is not what’s important. Movies are a sequence of connected images, each of which derives its meaning not just from its own unique content but also from its context and relationship to the other images in the film.

The average level of remembering does not correlate with the viewer’s sense of time, either. This is because not every image in the commercial is equally important—though each image is presumably there for a good reason, some images matter more than others. These are the moments that the film director Sergei Eisentstein considered the “privileged moments” in a film where pathos is created.

It’s the number of peak moments in the commercial that matters to our subjective sense of time. Statistically, the relationship is quite striking. Commercials with more than four peaks are twice as likely to be rated as “fast” than commercials with four or fewer peaks. (The mean number of peaks for the average :30-second ad is between four and five.)

The strongest association, and therefore the greatest determinant of the audience’s perception of how fast an ad moves, appears to be the frequency of peaks in the flow of attention.

The flow of emotion also has a strong relationship to perceived time. Importantly, positive emotions speed up the audience’s perception of time. Good times fly by! And, as anyone who has watched a good horror movie knows, negative emotions slow down the audience’s perception of time. My heart stopped!

What is the mental picture that comes to mind? The back and forth dramatic tension between positive and negative poles of emotion; the ticking from one peak moment to the next?…. It’s a clock!

Like the processor of a computer, our inner clock determines how our mind experiences film—including advertising film—by warping the fabric of time of our inner universe.

Like a good movie, good commercials distort the audience’s sense of time. Seen from the subjective viewpoint of the audience in the driver’s seat, good ads actually seem to work faster in the brain. Effective advertising is fast-working advertising.


Fraise, P., The Psychology of Time, New York: Harper and Row, 1963

Mandelbrot, B. and Hudson, R., The (Mis)Behavior of Markets, New York, NY: Basic Books, 2004, pp. 207-209

Young, Charles E., “The Eye is Not a Camera”, Quirks Marketing Research Review, March 2003.

Young, Charles E., “Brain Waves, Picture Sorts®, and Branding Moments” Journal of Advertising Research, July/August 2002