4 Seconds to Live: How to Cheat “Skip Ad” Death

Justin Daab

The shortest measurable interval of time in the universe is that between “Skip ad” and mouse click. 
The Skip Ad Reaper


That means as marketers we need to establish a compelling narrative in the four seconds before that highly desirable button appears.

So, here’s where I think my decades old Second City improv training can shed some light on how to have your pre-roll ad survive well past those four seconds. The first thing they drill into every wannabe improver’s head at Chicago’s Second City is that in those first few seconds, every viewer should be able to intuit the answers to the following questions:

  • Who are the characters?
  • What is their relationship?
  • What needs to be resolved?

After that, the details take care of themselves.

Seems easy. But from most of the pre-roll I see (or mostly don’t see, because I click “Skip ad”) start off with slow moving pans, like tired (but beautiful) aerial shots of cars on winding roads (click). A 3D spinning chrome logo with a hard driving music (click). A pan across a sunlit kitchen counter (click). Ooh a sunrise (click). Ooh a sunset (click).

That leads us to basic improv trick number two. Start in the middle of your story. A fishbowl falling in slow motion while a panicked father lunges to catch said fishbowl and a child looks on fearfully. Yup, I’ll stick around. A car pulled over with a state trooper walking stone-faced up to the window, pistol drawn. Yep, my kind of trouble. Years ago, Volkswagen started off commercials with a moment of happy then, bam: a jarring car accident (that everyone walked away from, unharmed). Way better than describing how airbags save lives.

That also goes for dialogue. Jump unapologetically into the middle. It feels more like eavesdropping to the viewer. So, the beginning of a “skip ad” conversation would be, “John, can we talk about the wedding?” The same no-skip conversation starts, “…Father Murphy says there’s nothing in the Bible that prevents us wearing clown makeup at the alter.”

It’s simply good writing technique. For anything. Address emotions and engage curiosity first. Tell backstory later. It even works for the world’s most technical B-to-B brochure. We do it every day.

So, in short—answer those three questions first and start your story in the middle. And now, as they say in improv, “End scene.”


Magnani is an experience design and strategy firm that crafts transformational digital experiences to delight users and deliver sustainable competitive market advantages for our clients.


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