Is A Picture Really Worth 1000 Words?

This has become one of the firmly held Truths of the modern age.  And like many such seemingly wise sayings it is frequently attributed to Confucius.  However, admen developed the saying in the early 1920s when they were selling ad space on streetcars. They discovered that a picture (image) helped to increase the sales of whatever they were selling.

Techies would like us to believe that images will take over as the communication means in the future.  We will not need to use words or know how to write.  It will all be images.  The current semi-illiterate texting on smart phones may bear them out.

However, let’s get back to basics.  Is a picture (image) really worth 1000 words when it comes to selling or other types of communications?

I picked some ads from a magazine and removed the words (copy) to see how effectively the pictures would sell the product.

Below is a reasonably good image of a wine bottle with some words (even the picture needs words) to help sell whatever the ad is selling.  Not doing a great job?  What is the ad selling? Wine? Italian lessons?  You have no idea.

Now here’s the complete ad.  Ah –ha.  The ad is for a credit card and has nothing to do with wine.

Let’s look at another ad to see how well just the picture sells the product.  This is an intriguing picture (image).  Is it an ad for a safari? There you are with your iPad in hand leading your bearers carrying your stuff in suitcases deep into the trackless jungle.  Well dressed bearers too.

Maybe it’s not an ad for a safari.  That’s it.  It’s an ad for suitcases.  Ones you have to carry on your head so they don’t get messed up in the jungle as you follow your safari leader.

So, it’s selling suitcases you take on safari

Well, no.  It’s not that either.  Let’s see what happens when we add back the words (copy).

Now the ad makes sense.   It’s an ad for a bank.  Credit Suisse will lend you money to buy safari suitcases and go on safari.

One more.  This one puts some words (copy) in the image to help you understand what it is they are trying to sell you.  How effective is that?  You tell me.

You got it.  They are trying to get you into the stock market.  This guy and gal will take your hard-earned cash and put it in the market for you and make you rich.  Right?

Or is it an ad by the SEC cautioning you not to give your money to these two but to call so that they can arrest them.  See, he’s checking that nobody’s watching.

But when we add in the copy, the story changes.

Now you get it.  In the fine print CDW is telling you that they are in the Securities business.  And I thought they sold reasonably priced laptops in a warehouse environment.  But wait.   They’re not in the securities business.  They are selling hardware to the crooked guy and gal so that they can rip you off faster and more reliably.  Now it’s clear.

So, copy is still king.  Copy puts the picture in context. Without the copy the image is meaningless.  With the copy the picture helps you avoid having to write a Dickensian length description of the multi-screen set up the crooked guy and gal are using to get your money.

So next time some client tells you that he/she wants lots of pictures and minimum copy to sell the product or service show him these and ask him if he/she wants to subject his customers to this type of mental exercise.  Or would he/she like them to understand the benefits the product or service offers and send him/her money.

And remind the client that he/she hired you to help sell and not entertain.