Images – Is Seeing Believing?

I wanted to explore the impact of the images we use in our businesses and the effect of the images circulating on social media.

“A picture paints a thousand words” Frederick R. Barnard in 1921

I am bombarded these days by all sorts of images. Whether they are cute or horrific, they each make an emotional impact in their 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 5 years earlier and sometimes even in another country. Archive photos of all sorts get re-used to demonstrate many different situations, and public emotions get swayed to and fro by the use of these images. If we aren’t diligent we can become emotional puppets, being 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 to war.

This started me thinking about the images people use within their businesses and how people react to them. Would using images that give a definite, but inaccurate, impression draw customers or lose them in the long run? I am not talking here about the many images that can be found online which can enhance and show your business off to its best advantage – I am purely discussing the ones that give an inaccurate impression.

I also considered how the images that we, and our friends, put on social media might have an adverse effect, or otherwise, on our businesses.

These are the conclusions that came from these particular trains of thought.

1. Our Logos

Once people find a logo for their business they often stick with it. However, businesses change and sometimes go down paths that were unexpected, but the logo stays the same, and it can get to the point of not truly representing the current day business.

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 If we come to the conclusion that it feels out of date then we shouldn’t be afraid to update it.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

2. How we present our products and services

It’s important that we choose the images we use with careful thought. Just because we love a particular image, it isn’t necessarily true that it accurately reflects our business, and that another one wouldn’t be more appropriate. We need to remember that it is our potential customer that needs to be reached through the image, and so we would be advised to put ourselves in their shoes.

If the images don’t accurately reflect our business we might lose the trust of our customers, and also create confusion about what it is we 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 – there are many that don’t care about whether paper is ‘green’ or not, but don’t alienate the ones that do. If you want to go organic, then do so, but don’t pretend.

If our businesses sell products online then it is important that people get really accurate photos. If products arrive that are a different size to how they appeared in the photo, or are flimsy whereas the photo made them look sturdy, then it is doubtful that we will have won a repeat customer, or any recommendations.

The use of shocking or controversial images to promote our businesses needs to be treated very carefully – there is as much possibility of driving customers away as there is of attracting them. It’s hard to predict which way the wind will blow. This is a tactic which is often used by a number of non-profit organisations, in order to get donations for their various worthwhile causes. I am not certain how successful it is as a marketing tool because there will be a variety of responses. There will be people who 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 they get thrown at them during the course of their day, and there will be some who will donate. I am just not sure whether the group that donate wouldn’t have done so anyway without the image.

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 very firmly in my mind. He mentioned 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.

3. How we present ourselves

I went along to get a professional photo taken some time ago and was a bit taken aback when I was asked if I’d like to be made to look younger. I was somewhat comforted by the fact that it 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! Another thought crossed my mind too – 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 a prerequisite. I think that keeping our photos up to date is important – maybe leaving a maximum of 10 years before thinking of replacing it.

It brought to mind a time when I was participating in festivals. I once had a stand opposite a lady who did readings. She had a big banner with a picture of herself hanging over her stand. She had set up before I arrived and her stand was initially empty. I got a big shock when I actually saw her, as she looked a great deal older than the picture portrayed. From what I observed over the few days we were neighbours, she would have been better off without the banner – it didn’t give a positive impression and was also a source of amusement to some passers-by. By all means use pictures which relate to accomplishments from the past, but it is also necessary to be proud of the person 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 before even 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.

4. 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 that what each one of us needs to do is decide what we are happy to show the world at large. Do we want our lives public or private? This varies for different people – and that’s what makes life interesting – it would 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, they would just laugh 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 Amanda Palmer and how she dealt with a newspaper that tried to demean her when they neglected to report on her music at a concert, but only on the fact that her breast was accidentally exposed. It is possible that you have seen the video that went viral of her response entitled ‘Dear Daily Mail’. It was funny, to the point and she kept her dignity throughout – despite singing half of the song stark naked. I suspect that she won’t have to worry much about negative body image publicity in future!

My final thoughts

If we think about it, with the advent of Photoshop and all the amazing graphics there are now, the only pictures we can really believe are the ones we take ourselves, or that come from a trusted source. Everything else is open to interpretation and/or adjustment.

Many years ago I remember seeing a demonstration on how photos can be used to influence people. One photo showed two men of different races walking down a road, the next showed the man at the back with his arms raised and throwing himself at the man in front, the third photo showed the man in front sprawled on the ground. An easy case of one man attacking another you would think! You could even take it further and assume it was a racial attack, due to the obvious differences in the men’s appearances. Then we were shown the fourth photo which was a shot of what was happening above the men’s heads. Something had fallen from a building and it would have hit the first man, if the second one hadn’t pushed him out of the way. It was a salutary lesson in not believing everything we see!