Images, Ethics and Marketing – Is Seeing REALLY Believing?

Images, Ethics and Marketing - Is Seeing REALLY Believing?
Sue Ellam explores the impact of images in business, marketing and social media and how some images manipulate emotions rather than reflect the truth.

”A picture paints a thousand words.” – Frederick R. Barnard, 1921

These days, I get bombarded by all sorts of images. Whether they are cute or horrific, each makes an emotional impact in its own way. For instance, I often feel manipulated when I discover that the ‘today’s earthquake disaster’ photo going viral on social media was actually taken five years earlier and sometimes even in another country. Archive photos of all sorts get re-used to demonstrate many different situations, and public emotions are swayed to and fro by the use of these images. If we aren’t diligent, we can unknowingly become emotional puppets, triggered by whatever someone else wants to show us and wants us to think. In the extreme, this can lead to fear, lack of self-esteem, bullying and even war.

This started me thinking about the images people use within their businesses and how people react to them.

Many images we find online can enhance and show off our businesses to their best advantage. But some, like those I mentioned above, give a clear but inaccurate impression of something. Do such images draw customers to us, or would we lose them in the long run? And what about the images we and our friends put on social media? Can sharing the wrong kind of image sometimes have an adverse effect on what people think of us or our businesses?

All this got me thinking about the parameters we, as business owners, should bear in mind if we want to ensure our images send the right messages to our audiences. Here are some of my thoughts on the subject.

Our Logos

Once people find a logo for their business, they often stick with it. However, businesses change and sometimes go down unexpected paths, but the logo stays the same. Eventually, the logo no longer truly represents the business.

It’s a good idea to have a look at your logo after a period of time and see if it still resonates with your business, especially if the business has changed significantly. If you come to the conclusion that it feels out of date, don’t be afraid to update it. In fact, the change of logo can be utilised as a marketing event to bring fresh attention to your business. It can be a way of creating new interest from previous customers and of showing your current and potential customers that yours is a forward-thinking and evolving business.

How We Present Our Products and Services

In business, it’s important that we choose the images we use with care. Just because we love particular images doesn’t necessarily mean they accurately reflect our businesses. These images must speak to our potential customers, not just to us; we would be well advised to put ourselves in their shoes to choose the right one.

If the images don’t accurately reflect our businesses, we might lose the trust of our customers. We might also create confusion about what our companies actually do. For example, if you are a stationer, it’s better not to use images of trees or nature specifically designed to give the impression that your paper is eco-friendly and recyclable if it isn’t. Be honest with your customers. Many may not care about whether paper is ‘green’ or not, but be sure you don’t alienate the ones who do. If you want to go organic, then do so, but don’t pretend to be what you’re not through deceptive imagery.

If you sell products online, it is important to use extremely accurate photos. If products arrive that are a different size, style or strength to how they appeared in the photo, it is doubtful you will win a repeat customer, or earn any positive feedback/recommendations.

One tactic popular among a number of non-profit organisations is the use of shocking or controversial images. The idea is that they will trigger emotions and encourage people to donate to these various worthwhile causes. But this practice needs to be treated very carefully, as there is as much possibility of driving customers away as there is of attracting them. Some people will be shocked and not even look at the article in the effort to get past the picture as quickly as possible. Others will have become desensitised by all the images thrown at them during the course of their days. And, yes, some people will donate. Because it’s so hard to predict which way the wind will blow with shock images, I am not at all certain how successful they are as marketing tools.

Some years ago, a company I worked for invited someone from a children’s charity to come and speak to a group of us. It was a very interesting talk, and one of the things he told us has stuck firmly in my mind. He spoke about the pictures of children that were used in fostering campaigns – where the children were attractive and smiling and people could really imagine them in their homes. He said that these images were largely unhelpful, because many of the children he dealt with in the course of his day weren’t at all like that. Traumatised children rarely are. Therefore, a potential foster parent wasn’t getting the true picture of what fostering a child could mean. These children all desperately needed fostering and love, but their smiles might just take some time to come to the surface.

How We Present Ourselves

Some time ago, I went to have a professional photo taken. I was a bit taken aback when the photographer asked me if I’d like to be made to look younger! I was somewhat comforted by the fact that this was a standard question for him to ask. I know that I’m getting older, but being Photoshopped wasn’t something I had ever considered. I also didn’t want to put a younger version of myself out there and then get looks of confusion when I met people for the first time.

Then, another thought crossed my mind: How can I run an ethical business and, at the same time, portray myself inaccurately?

More importantly, what on earth is so wrong with getting older, anyway? I am sure many people prefer to deal with someone a bit older where certain businesses are concerned and wisdom and experience are prerequisites. Personally, I think that keeping our photos up to date is important and that they should be taken at least every 10 years.

This incident brought to mind a time back when I was participating in festivals. I once had a stand opposite a lady who did readings. Over her stand, she had hung a big banner with a picture of herself. I had a big shock when I actually saw her, as she looked a great deal older than she did in the picture. After watching her for a few days, I came to the conclusion that she would have been better off without the banner. Not only did it give the wrong impression, but it also became a source of amusement for some of the passers-by. While it’s fine to use pictures that relate to our accomplishments from the past, it is also necessary to be proud of the people we are today.

In this day and age of social media, we need to be even more aware of how we portray ourselves. Potential customers and business partners, to name but a few, can easily check us out online. I myself witnessed a former colleague checking out a potential employee on her Facebook page and coming to a number of conclusions even before meeting her. This doesn’t have to be a problem if we are diligent and aware that when we are on social media, we are potentially exposed to the world and anyone who might take an interest in us.

How Others Present Us on Social Media

I know that many of us aren’t going to have the paparazzi following us around trying to take demeaning and sensationalist photos of us (thank heaven!). However, photos and videos which we would prefer not to see the light of day can easily be circulated by people we know who think that ‘it’s just a joke’ and have no idea how damaging these can be to our reputations. If our business is high profile enough, these can go viral and cause us much embarrassment.

I believe each of us needs to decide what we are happy to show the world at large. Do we want our lives public or private? Of course, this varies between people. And that’s what makes life interesting; it would indeed be very dull if we were all the same. Some people genuinely wouldn’t worry if a compromising photo or a video of them blind drunk at a party went viral, just laughing it off. But others would be mortified and want to leave the country until the fuss died down. I think that we need to have a chat with ourselves and decide what is acceptable and what isn’t, and then act accordingly so that we never have reason to wish we hadn’t made that particular mistake.

I have tremendous respect for how singer Amanda Palmer dealt with the UK newspaper Daily Mail when they tried to make a scandal out of the fact that her breast was accidentally visible on stage at the Glastonbury Music Festival (but neglected to make any comment on her musical performance). Her very candid video response – entitled ‘Dear Daily Mail‘ – went viral. It was funny and to the point AND she kept her dignity throughout, despite singing half of the song stark naked. I suspect she won’t have to worry much about negative body-image publicity in future! Here is the link for those who would like to see it and who aren’t averse to nudity and choice language:

Closing Thoughts

Seeing is NOT always believing. Many years ago I remember seeing a demonstration on how photos can be used to influence people. The first photo showed two men of different races walking down a road. The next showed one of the men standing with raised arms behind the other and throwing himself at the man in front. The third photo showed the man who was in front now sprawled on the ground. This sequence would make you think it was depicting one man attacking another. You could even take it further and assume it was a racial attack, due to the obvious differences in the men’s appearances. But then we were shown a fourth photo. In this one, we saw what was happening above the men’s heads. Something had fallen from a building, and it would have hit the first man had the second man not pushed him out of the way. It was a salutary lesson in not believing everything we see!

Especially with the advent of Photoshop and all the amazing graphics available to us, virtually everything we see is open to interpretation and/or adjustment. This makes it essential for us ethical marketers to be judicious in how we use images for our businesses. If a picture says a thousand words, let’s make sure ours say the right words – for our businesses, for our customers and for ourselves.

Have you knowledge or experience in the use of images that you would like to share? Or maybe you have a different opinion? I would be really interested to hear from you. Please feel free to use the comment box below so we can chat about this important subject.

Sue Ellam
5th September 2014

Sue is a graduate of our 7 Graces ‘Foundations of Ethical Marketing’ course. To find out more about this course and our growing community of ethical marketers, CLICK HERE to to come along to our FREE info call on 24th September.

Sue-EllamSUE ELLAM is fascinated by the power of mind over matter and was initially guided towards spiritual healing and medium-ship. She is a professionally trained graphologist of 21 years standing and has travelled extensively using this skill, as well as that of tarot reading, participating in many festivals worldwide. Currently she is developing Soulfully Connecting which is a global website dedicated to the healing of mind, body, soul and planet. Her vision is to connect like-minded individuals around the world through the sharing of knowledge, providing a platform so that the change-makers can be seen, appreciated and supported.

Sue is a graduate of the 7 Graces Foundations of Ethical Marketing course.

Twitter: @soulfullysue

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