Friday, February 11, 2011

Beware: Stock Images Can Harm a Business

Have you ever visited a website, a good looking quality site, and quickly dismissed it as not suitable for what you’re looking for? It could well be down to the images on the site. We’ve all seen them. Handsome brief case carrying businessmen shaking hands, beautiful call centre staff with whiter than white teeth, shinny skyscrapers, glossy tech. But the one thing in common with all these is that they are stock images that do not depict the real people, product or location of the company they are advertising.

Over the past few years the price of stock images has fallen, sometimes by as much as ten fold. Consequently their use, on line and in print, has increased to a point where they have overwhelmingly become the standard route by which web and graphic designers offer cheap, fast and accessible designs to new ventures and "quick fixes". However, there is usually insufficient consideration made to the message that the use of such images now conveys. Because they have become so wide spread, the public are becoming accustomed to the stock image style, and they now know it does not reflect reality, especially those lifestyle images like the handshake and the over friendly receptionist. So rather than seeing the content, understanding the message, or feeling the emotion, they see a library photo that they know doesn’t reflect the reality of the company, service or product it is supposed to convey. Essentially they know they are being misled. Of course once the viewer feels that way, then there is an immediate and natural scepticism for any written content that follows. Content which indeed will probably be a much more accurate and detailed reflection of the message that the advertiser is trying to portray.

This disconnection between perceived reality and apparent portrayal, is something that has long been suspected by photographers, as well as some in the design and marketing sectors. But, until relatively recently, it has been generally assumed that the public audience were not sufficiently aware of the stock image lie, and that the benefits of using it, outweighed the cost of creating custom imagery. The speculation that this is not the case, has now been backed up by a recent study. The research used eye tracking techniques to monitor viewers attention patterns when visiting websites. The technique involves monitoring how long and how frequently a viewer will look at the items on a webpage. It showed that viewers generally ignored not only bad images but also large irrelevant images, preferring to concentrate on images of real people and good product images in contextual settings.

We are also seeing an increasing number of design and marketing companies advising against the use of stock imagery, and there are definitely clichéd stock images that have to be avoided. The handshake, the telephone headset, the skyscraper, the group shot of models etc. Use of these images, when they are self generated and relevant, are a true depiction of what is being portrayed. Stock images aren’t, and are now being interpreted as a cut price solution by an increasingly discerning audience.

You may of course be forgiven in thinking that stock image faux pas are restricted to smaller companies and those on tight budgets. Not so. The mighty Apple corporation fell foul of a stock image trap. The trap of non-excluivity and multiple usage, when it used a picture of a Lion as the flagship image for its new operating system "Lion". In all likelyhood, what they failed to do was sufficiently investigate any prior usage, or secure exclusive reproduction rights for it. The same image had in fact already been used in a campaign by a far rightwing extremist group in Germany. The error was duly out-ed in blogs and the press. At the time it was discovered, the image was still available to purchase from various stock libraries. A possible indication that either Apple had also failed to secure exclusive rights, or that the libraries had failed Apple by not removing the images or told them of the prior use. Unless of course Apple knew of that previous use. A highly unlikely sceanario. Shortly after the news broke of the blunder, the image disappeared from all library websites, raising further speculation that Apple had now bought the exclusive rights. However, because the image had already been used, exclusivity will only have been guaranteed to them for future use.

The Democratic Unioinist Party also got into hot water during the 2010 elections in Northern Ireland. Not only did they fail to obtain exclusivity on all similar images, or check that they could use the stock image for a political campaign, but the poster was also parodied by the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists using an image of the same model from the same shoot.

These however are not extreme or isolated cases. There are many examples of non exclusive stock images being used by numerous different companies, as well as startups using the same library image as their established rivals.

So what is the solution? Certainly avoid using clichéd lifestyle "feel good" stock images that do not reflect you, your business or your products. No one likes to be misled. Good commissioned contextual images of your staff, premises and products will achieve far better results and exclusivity can be guaranteed. If you have to use stock images, keep them to a minimum, and use only what is relevant and accurate. Check and purchase the exclusive rights, you never know who else might have used the image and in what context. Finally keep in mind that when you use an image on a page, it will be the image that will set the story. The words you use are then the detail of that story. What you show must illustrate what you say, and what you say must illustrate what you show, and of course, it must be true.