Photography: An Overused and Abused Way to Tell a Story in Today’s Marketing Communications

With the availability of artwork online, we’re in something of a visual renaissance (there are literally thousands of stock image sites. Corbis, the largest online stock agency, has over 100 million images, and the boom of microstock houses with independent photographers posting their work has flooded the Internet.). Along with this sheer proliferation has come an unappeasable thirst for photography, which in turn has become the downfall of image-based advertising. Photography tastes have become lowbrow because accessibility has put a tool in the hands of the underskilled, underbudgeted and trigger-happy. Visual clichés abound, and uniqueness no longer seems to matter; a shot of a handshake seems to be all that’s needed to sell an ad. And since photography is so readily available, cheap and easy to do oneself, why go further?

The conditions for marketing today are unprecedented in many ways, but one of the more frustrating and potentially crippling conditions is the perception and misperception of the value of photography. With everybody and their dog shooting with a digital camera and feeling just as capable as the pros, with the acessibility of stock photography sites selling images for $1, with the magic of Photoshop and the need to get everything done in a day, the idea/understanding of meaningful and brand-unique photography has fallen by the wayside.

For as long as advertising has been around, the style of the imagery used for a brand has been a signature (i.e. - Apple’s iPod). The lighting effects, angle, and styling of the models or props become unconscious brand indicators and tell a layered, custom story. Photography used to be a proprietary visual mark for each brand, and it still can be, when done right. The best branding through imagery has been true custom execution with attention to all the details. I’m willing to concede that not every photo within these classic ads was a good one, but they were at least conceived of and executed for a particular brand message.

Now the marketing world is clamoring for shortcuts and budget cuts when it comes to visual expression. I see ads for condoms and Christian novels using the same stock photo, each oblivious of the other. I see lousy digital snapshots being placed in a national ad that easily cost $100K. There is no logic in the choices made, and often a strategic creative directive isn’t behind the image selection or representation of the brand. Companies pay tens of thousands of dollars on research, go through great pains to hire an award-winning branding agency, fight tooth and nail over the appropriateness of the ad content, and then offhandedly default to stock photography. All companies talk vehemently about making their brands distinct, about being the next hot thing that becomes Starbucks, Mini Cooper and Nike all wrapped in one, but it’s easy to forget that distinction comes from your message AND the visual rendition of that message.

A well crafted photo does make a difference. The picture is a visceral part of the brand experience, and people are inherently image-driven creatures, still operating from the same impulses we had when we communicated through cave drawings. How do you make the decision to engage a photograper? My advice is to look at the time and cost it would require and compare it to the media and production costs. While 15% is always a good place to start, the professionals know how to pull and squeeze to fit all sorts of budgets. Once you've made that initial decision to hire a photographer, open yourself to the wide world of possibility.