A View Is Considered Three Seconds

Molly Garrett

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The average hug lasts three seconds. In a study of human behavior, researchers watched videos, frame by frame, of the 2008 Olympics athletes hugging in celebration, remorse, and courtesy. Although the extrapolation may be shaky, sociologists and anthropologists have also supported this finding. Three seconds is an inherently significant unit of time; many gestures, interpersonal moments and internal bodily functions operate in a three second rhythm.

Three seconds before the natural impulse to blink.

Three seconds to smile and nod as you walk past an acquaintance on the street.

Three seconds to let out a sigh in frustration.

In our body, three seconds feels at home.

In online ads, three seconds is considered a successful view for a video. For ad placements, the same three seconds seen 8-10 times is considered enough for someone to remember. If they’re interested, maybe they’ll watch for 10 seconds, 15 would be incredible.

In 2004, researchers started studying attention spans with stopwatches. They found that office workers, on average, could achieve focused attention for 2 and a half minutes. In 2012, it shrunk to 1 minute and 15 seconds. The most recent data suggests we’re now at an average of 47 seconds—perhaps that’s generous.

Video on social media has mostly abandoned structure or story, only having one-mississippi two-mississippi three-mississippi guaranteed. Shorter, it should always be shorter. The viewer is anxious to see the next thing, the next thing, the next thing—there’s a never ending supply of content. Perhaps people’s anxiety is fueled by the knowledge they can never watch it all, so they’re intuitively chasing a video that fits their particular niche interests and insecurities… for certain videos, the odds are forever stacked against that happening. The viewer can smell a political advertisement in the first second, something in the color combinations and tone of voice. They scroll through… now they’re seeing an influencer’s reaction video, a friend at a party they weren’t invited to, an advertisement for specialty dog food.

On June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court made a ruling that we now colloquially call “the Dobbs decision.” The case was Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, and the question that came before the Supreme Court was this: Did the state of Mississippi violate the constitution by enacting a state law that banned “most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy with exceptions for medical emergencies and fetal abnormalities?” This question challenged the federal precedent, the 1970 ruling of Roe v. Wade. The ultimate Dobbs ruling overturned abortion access at the federal level, culminating a 50-year sustained, strategic effort by anti-choice lobbyists and special interest groups.

Three seconds to open a new tab and begin typing in the search bar.

Google Ads Transparency Center is Google’s attempt at repentance for the harm they’ve caused in political advertising. You can now use the technology that uses you to search for money and messaging spent to its greedy hands. I search ads placed June 24 - August 2, 2022, political, shown in Kansas—the most important election for abortion access since Dobbs.

At that time I was living in Kansas City. Although technically in Missouri, my apartment was just two blocks from State Line Road, which I walked down to get to my doctor’s appointments, at Kansas University Medical Center, just a half mile away. In June - August of 2022, you couldn’t walk one block without seeing a yard sign, banner, or bumper sticker about the abortion referendum, bright blue and dull purple rectangles dotting the city’s yards, windows, and cars. To paraphrase the question up for vote: Should Kansas protect abortion access at the state level? The amendment was called the Value Them Both constitutional amendment—a YES vote was against abortion access and a NO vote would protect abortion access. Confusing on purpose, of course.

I had been working in politics for seven years at this point. My first federal election was 2016. Donald Trump was elected president and almost all of our state-wide clients lost; my coworkers and I spent most of the night ducking out of the office election night watch party to cry into our wine glasses. By 2022, I had fully acclimatized to that environment. I had learned how to swim upstream, keeping my head above water, despite cause for overwhelming dread and despair. There had been big wins and big losses, and I had learned a lot from my coworkers–a hardened group of young adults ranging from progressive to radical, all faced with the reality of living in a very red state. We moved like a well-oiled machine [1] most of the time, and I found my place. I often disagreed with platforms or tactics, but progressive politics in Kansas and Missouri isn’t a great place for idealism.

The larger the race the less exciting or rewarding I found the work—working in federal races started to feel horrible and slimy, coated in millions of dollars of lobbyist money and overworkshopped messaging language. I found my hope and dedication in working for smaller races and groups: state congressional districts and ballot measures, city council races, unions and coalitions. I created ads that alerted voters to a ballot measure that would improve funding for the Minneapolis park system. I helped educate Missouri voters on the lack of sunshine laws in the state government, and how it is one of the most corrupt in the country. I plodded forward, wondering if I was actually doing anything, but feeling that at least this work was more worthwhile than making ads for Gatorade and Nike.

In the summer of 2022, all of my work shifted to abortion access preservation and protection. I was working for Kansans For Constitutional Freedom [2], the coalition leading the charge. My colleague, Meg, had designed the yard signs strewn across the city. My manager, Ryan, a longtime Midwestern political analyst who had become a great friend, called me once a day to talk in therapy-style ramblings about the latest polls and numbers and what that might mean for the election. Most of it went over my head, but I listened to him like his hope could affect the outcome. My natural tendency to optimism helped us both. We sent out ad after ad, messaging dialed in tightly, a downpour sloshing into the algorithm of Kansas voters. The other side did the same. We waited, seeing what would rise to the top. If three seconds is precious, if hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent — what words were said?

This confusing constitutional amendment is a slippery—
If cars ran on excuses, Joe Biden and Sharice Davids—
Don’t be mislead, abortion is already highly regulated—
On the constitutional amendment, here’s what you—
The abortion industry and radical left are spending millions—
The radical left gave us high gas prices—
Kansas has become an abortion destination—
Hey, it’s Harrison Butker, kicker for the Kansas City Chiefs—
We were expecting our second child when we learned—
Do no harm. That’s the oath we—
I’ve read the Value Them Both Amendment—
Which Kansas will you choose? Biden and the radical—
Whatever you’re doing, stop and listen—
On the constitutional amendment, here’s what you need to know—
Politicians are trying to confuse you —
I won’t support putting a woman’s life at risk—
Opponents of the Value Them Both Amendment are misleading you—
Growing up Catholic, we didn’t talk about—
Confused about this amendment? It could ban—

Some of those are my words, words I typed. I rattled off the approved language to explain the horrors of a person forced to give birth. I searched for the words that keep the message 1) condensed for time, 2) dramatic for efficacy, 3) not offensive for approval.

I think of what I want to say—

“Keep abortion legal.”

1 out of 3, not approved. In the midwest, it has to be more dramatic, and the word abortion can be considered offensive. Try switching to “reproductive healthcare”—now it’s too long. For more attention, it has to be about a woman suffering, or a doctor going to jail. The algorithm doesn’t crave nuance or clarity, just put the iStock image of a jail door slamming, a woman crying in a hospital bed, add text on screen. Hammer to skull, scream with your text—


In 2019, I hiked a section of the Appalachian trail by myself. I planned a five day hike that would take me across roughly 40 miles of the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. The second night, as I stopped at a backcountry tent site and began heating up water for my dehydrated food, I was approached by three men in their early 20s. They were handsome, clean cut, inexplicably grinning at me. They shook my hand, then asked me how my hike had gone. Their second question was, had I accepted Jesus into my heart?

Three seconds to pause, smile, formulate a response. Light, firm, breezy, polite.

I wasn’t raised religious. In midwestern America, that meant Easter was a holiday about candy and bunnies. In English class, literary biblical references would go over my head (what is a millstone and how is it around a throat?) [3] The summer of 2008, I accidentally took communion while nannying for a family’s children at church. I’ve never understood the extreme conviction that religion inspires, the unwavering and unforgiving rules, and how it can turn someone into a single-issue voter. [4]

It takes less than three seconds to reference the bible, and perhaps that’s the secret to conservative groups’ eternally sharpened edge. Jesus is their messaging director and it’s airtight. Who wants to argue complexity if there’s sin on the line?

The technology has outmatched our attention span, our phrases no longer function in the mode in which they now exist, we’ve boxed ourselves in. The key ingredient is attention, not understanding. I made ads featuring iStock photos of pregnant women crying, trying not to think of my pregnant sister, who had indeed called me crying most days. My niece is almost two years old now. My fingers typed “with no exceptions for rape, incest, of the life of the mother” but I couldn’t think about what that could actually mean for myself or my friends. Instead, mind elsewhere, I waited for the campaign’s approval. 50k went behind that ad campaign, a 60 second video following a true story of a woman who miscarried her planned pregnancy and needed abortion access as healthcare. Her story is very sad, it’s hard to watch, you probably wouldn’t stay longer than a few seconds.

1 - Albeit a very loud machine. Men in politics love to hear themselves yell, even when they are on the right side of things.
2 - A name so Republican-sounding it should come as no surprise that the main messaging goal was to appear as bi-partisan as possible. In their own words, KCF was a “bipartisan coalition of reproductive rights advocates and allied organizations committed to protecting the constitutional rights of Kansans and the right to safe, legal abortion.” I pulled that language from their website.
3 - Oliver Twist
4 - My maternal grandmother was a single issue voter. She was an incredible, independent woman with a sharp sense of humor. She was a nurse in WWII and raised nine kids on her own after her husband died very young. Although a feminist in many ways, she was also a devout Catholic — she just couldn’t stomach voting for someone who wasn’t pro-life.

Molly Garrett (she/her) is an animator and designer. Her creative work intersects with politics and social justice, and has included clients like Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, Jobs with Justice and The Midwest Innocence Project. She is also a member of the Nicolas Gogan Foundation, a mutual aid fund that supports the trans+ community. Her personal practice includes hand-drawn animations and pondering what a book can be. She is currently an MFA candidate at Virginia Commonwealth University.