A picture is worth a thousand words – bollocks!

by
November 27, 2011

Dave Trott, the famous ad man, not one to shy away from controversy, recently added his voice to the “nobody reads copy any more” debate.  Whilst he is far from the first to make this suggestion the fact he did it in the latest edition of “The Copy Book” has caused a bit of a stir – how contrary can you get?!

Rather than respond with a rehash of all the familiar arguments for and against (boring) I thought I’d tackle it from a different angle – and suggest that “nobody looks at pictures any more”.

Trott talks tosh?

Let’s start by just clarifying what the great “Hello Tosh, Gotta Toshiba” guru actually wrote in The Copy Book.

“I was always taught, 5% of people who turn to your page read the headline.

And 5% of the people who read the headline, read the copy.

If that’s true, the copy is 5% of 5% of the ad.

In which case, who are we writing the copy for?”

Too much information

I can’t argue with Dave Trott’s statistics (I have the original edition of The Copy Book, and although I’ve read all the headlines I’ve not read every word of the body copy).

However, I don’t think it’s just the words people are ignoring.  In a lot of instances it’s the images as well.

The reason is that we’re all reeling from an over-abundance of information.  A few years ago I read that a weekday edition of The Times newspaper contains more information than the average person was likely to come across in an entire lifetime during the 17th century.  And that the information supply is now doubling every four years.  Recent estimates suggest we each see about 3,000 advertising messages a day.

Do I look like someone who is interested?

Is the human brain expanding sufficiently rapidly to take in this tsunami?  No – we are just getting better at screening it out, with our own personal mental firewalls and spam filters.  Marketers are therefore trying desperately to find more effective ways to cut through the clutter and attract the eyeballs of people with attention deficit disorder.

One strategy is to use increasingly dramatic imagery.  But I question the extent to which this works any more – pictures are losing their power.  Really?  Well, let’s put this into a historical context.

Image devaluation

About 500 years ago most people were illiterate – so pictures were often like books, telling elaborate stories from the Bible, antiquity or folklore.  The Sistine Chapel, for instance, depicts nine stories from the book of Genesis, while Pieter Bruegel the Elder illustrated the Fall of Icarus, the Census at Bethlehem and Netherlandish Proverbs, depicting a land populated with literal renditions of Flemish proverbs of the day all in a single painting.  In the 16th century producing a picture took much skill and time.  And you didn’t see many of them about.  So each one would have had a profound effect on the viewer.

But then literacy increased, and printing was invented.  Next came photography, TV, photocopiers, fax, picture libraries, mobiles, laser jet printers, Google Images, Adobe, Illustrator, Flickr, YouTube, the iPhone.  The result?  Pictures are now easy to create, produce, reproduce, send, download, print, manipulate.

As the skill and effort required to do all this is reduced, and the supply increases, so the sense of wonder diminishes, replaced by a weary familiarity.  As for the camera never lying…those days are long gone.

This means that pictures have to work harder to achieve the same effect.  That’s why you see designers using increasingly startling imagery, weird graphics, wacky typography and advanced special effects – they’re all signs of increasing desperation.  And when everyone is resorting to the same tricks, no one stands out from the crowd.  Pictures intended to shock, intrigue, engage and provoke are all too often treated with indifference – we’ve seen it all before, too many times.

So what’s to do?

First off, stop trotting out that “A picture’s worth a thousand words” line.  Not any more it aint!

Second, make the picture work really, really hard.  What do I mean by that?

Don’t use some clichéd library shot that doesn’t add anything meaningful to the communication.  No shaking hands, no people in meetings, no goldfish, no piles of pebbles – they are just crass, and a waste of valuable space (see my previous post “Why some library photographs are the kiss of death”)

Don’t use a picture that merely repeats what’s in the headline – if you do that, one of them is largely redundant.  For instance, if the headline is “Our new software is child’s play” don’t show a baby with a laptop.

Don’t use images for mere decoration.  Take these ads for Korean Air.  They say absolutely nothing and the image is just there to disguise that fact.

 

Finally, don’t put a shot of the target audience in the ad.  It’s pure brainless laziness.  Mortgages for first time buyers?  Err, what can we put in the ad?  Got it…how about a shot of a first time buyer?  That’ll have them beating a path to our door – genius!

Ideas, ideas, ideas – get the idea?

Images work hardest when they spark off the headline, to create an idea.  To do that there must be a gap, a bit like the gap on a spark plug (read my earlier post “Talking great copy is easy.  But can you torque it?”).  Once the reader makes the connection there’s a flash of cognition and the idea ignites in their brain.  Like the VW ad with a shot of a mechanic lying under the psychiatrists couch while Sigmund Freud looks at them in bewilderment, with the headline “Do we drive our mechanics too hard?”  Or this other classic VW ad with a simple line drawing.

The oldest trick in the book – words

Maybe it’s time to rediscover the lost art of the headline?

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