An outdated rule? Why watch ads almost always use the same time

Do you have a magazine to hand? Well flick through it, stop at the watch ads and check the time displayed. With few exceptions the time shown will be a couple of minutes either side of 10 past 10. This tradition, and its occasional misapplication, has lessons for brands beyond the watch category.

There are sensible reasons for this approach. It means the hands are pleasingly symmetrical and features, like secondary dials or the logo, aren’t normally obscured.

But symmetry and clarity can be achieved with the hands at 8.20. In fact, up until the 1930s most watch ads displayed that time. It was only when advertisers became interested in psychology that they switched to 10 past 10. They believed that the time provided positive subconscious cues as it was reminiscent of a smile or victory sign. A new norm was established from which few deviated.

The rule isn’t a problem, after all it has aesthetic benefits, but an inflexible application is. Timex ads, for example, always show the time as 10:09:36, even if doing so hides key features. The rule has taken on a life of its own, divorced from the original smart thinking. What was designed to aid message comprehension, now hinders it through slavish devotion.

Curious and curiouser

Dave Gorman, in his book Too Much Information, spotted that HTC ads always show phones with the time at 10:08.

That time makes sense on analogue displays for the purpose of symmetry and positivity but not on digital ones. A rule which added value in one scenario is being unthinkingly applied in a new one.

Unfortunately, the inappropriate application of rules occurs regularly in advertising.

Applying old rules to new situations

Video ads on Facebook are one example. According to Facebook roughly 70% of brands run TV copy on their site without any creative modifications. That’s a problem because the newsfeed is a more hectic environment than the living room – video copy has to compete for attention with lots of other content.

Rather than running existing TV copy it’s better to follow Facebook’s advice and re-purpose it. In particular, they recommend a heartbeat approach: hooking the viewers’ attention immediately and regularly, rather than slowly building to a crescendo as a traditional TV story arc might do.

Or take digital display ads, which often follow the rules of print copy. They assume the luxury of a few seconds to snare a readers’ attention. That’s unrealistic. Data from eye-tracking specialist, Lumen, shows that only 9% of viewers glance at online ads for more than a second. It’s better to think of display space like a poster and keep messages brutally simple. Once again, using the wrong set of rules makes for ineffective copy.

All of us should question whether cherished beliefs are effective for the particular problem that we’re working on, rather than just applying them indiscriminately.

Richard Shotton is deputy head of evidence at Manning Gottlieb OMD. He tweets @rshotton

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