Madhukar Sabnavis: The power of visuals

Last Updated: Thu, Nov 01, 2012 19:53 hrs

I am not an art expert, but I love it and enjoy visiting museums when I go abroad. Seeing paintings is an elevating experience. A few years ago, when I visited the Prado in Madrid, I did an experiment. Instead of seeing a painting and reading the plate next to it, I decided to just walk casually around a room and stop at any painting that caught my eye. I stopped at three of them — lo and behold, they were by well-known masters. I did a second experiment. I sat on a bench in the middle of the room and observed other visitors in the room. Lo and behold, most tended to stop at the same paintings. The power of a good visual suddenly dawned upon me. The three paintings were masterpieces that had something in them compelling even a casual viewer to give them a second look. Even beyond their branding, many masterpieces – Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Rembrandt’s Night Watch and Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring – have some special quality that catches the attention of art lovers and casual viewers alike. Yet in the world of advertising, visuals are largely used to support advertising stories and messages, and not treated as messages and stories in themselves.

This is not surprising. The spoken word is the norm of communication: it is what we are brought up on. In childhood, we are taught the alphabet, words and grammar as a subject early at school, and then all other learning happens through words. Most schoolbooks are filled with texts; pictures provide visual relief. Painting is mostly just a subject in school at which only “some” children are seen to be adept. That may be fine as far as education is concerned. But visual communication has been driven into a niche — meant for specialists like painters, sculptors and photographers. Yet there are enough studies to show the importance of visuals in human communication. In his book How Customers Think, Gerald Zaltzman highlights the point that while consumers express themselves with words, memories are stored in the form of visuals. He further postulates this could be a limitation of many researches that force consumers to express visual memories in the form of words — too much could be lost in transmission!

Yet, as advertising has evolved in India in the last two decades, the copywriter has grown in dominance compared to the art director — words have overpowered visuals. This has been abetted by both the process and people involved. Briefs are given in words, ideas are often thought of – and communicated in – words, and so, naturally, execution is driven by words. Add to this the fact that the best art directors are quieter in nature. Copywriters have, thus, dominated the process of selling work.

However, for many good advertisements the power of the visual keeps coming back in many consumer researches, even though they haven’t been probed. (Most probes are based on cognitive feedback rather than emotional feelings; visuals tend to be more emotionally evocative rather than verbally compelling.) In a Tata Safari advertisement a few years ago, the visual of the SUV emerging from behind a rock is so telling that it lingers long after the message,“reclaim your life”, is forgotten. Semiotic impact aside, the visual speaks a lot about power and excitement. The clean white look of Hutch billboards in the mid-2000s stuck out as simple and elegant, making the brand feel quiet, understated and hence premium in a highly cacophonous market. Titan was built in the early 1990s by just showcasing the product in show window-type pictures to create desirability and style. Fashion brands have cracked the code by enticing consumers with minimal words and a single visual of the product, or a person with expressions ranging from alluring to seductive to friendly to innocent. Walk down any mall and look at the fashion windows or flip the pages of a lifestyle magazine, and the power of the visual quietly shouts out at you.

We are living in a changing world. Aesthetics is growing in importance; products need to be pleasing to the eye while fulfilling functionality. Sight is growing in importance. Yet, consumers’ attention spans are getting smaller. And there is an exponential growth in the number of screens in a consumer’s life: cinema (the largest), television (growing wider day by day, to simulate the cinema experience), desktops and laptops, tablets and mobile phones. Add to these billboards that flash in front of consumers whenever they are outdoors or in modern retail. These all become mediums for brand communication. There is an opportunity for brands to exploit the aesthetic power of the visual. In a world where the consumer does not have the time and patience to stop, notice, absorb and remember, a great visual flashing in front of her eyes can create an emotional affinity for the product or service.

Few great advertising examples exist, to my mind, that do this well (suggestions from readers are welcome!). A couple of campaigns are worth citing. In the 1990s, Wallace, an upper-end fashion store, ran a print campaign based on the concept “dressed to kill”. It had visuals of people distracted by beautiful women – naturally, in Wallace wear – meeting “deadly” ends: a car crashing into a bridge, a barber about to slit his customer’s neck while shaving him, a guard about to crash into a tunnel bridge as the metro left the station. The visuals were dramatic; they told a story in a flash. A recent campaign for Harvey Nichols (a high-end fashion store) has visuals of beautiful women kissing their mirror images with just the line “love thyself” — visuals that so wonderfully symbolise self-indulgence. Closer home, a Shoppers Stop campaign of the 1990s stands out as a strong visual campaign, with faces of wistful shoppers. The black-and-white treatment and the faces make you feel something’s special about the store.

As we move ahead, while the growth of digital media provides the opportunity to engage and hold consumers longer to a brand message, the availability of multiple screens flashing for a short while provides the opposite opportunity — to subliminally influence the mind through imagery. All the creators need to do is: unleash the power of the visual. They need to add the power of painting to their power of poetry; move from wordsmithing to visual crafting; and seek inspiration from artists who live by visuals — think like Raghu Rai or Salvador Dali. Something worth thinking about.

The writer is vice-chairman of Ogilvy and Mather, India. These views are his own.  

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