Since the dawn of product advertising, portraiture has played a starring role in some of the most successful and memorable print campaigns. In 1936, a portrait of the stunningly beautiful Olga Nelson Atkins became the first centerpiece in a legendary series of “Breck Girls” shampoo ads. And of course, we all remember the handsome and rugged Marlboro Man, who made the filtered cigarette a symbol of masculinity. Just how did these two-dimensional icons earn our loyalty?
According to David B. Givens, Ph.D., director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies, the answer may be written all over their faces. Givens describes the face as every human’s visual trademark, a powerful expression of attitudes, opinions, and moods that defines our identity and enables us to communicate—and connect—without words.
Throughout the 20th century, the human face has remained a powerful focal point in advertising communication, but as our attitudes and values have evolved, so has the nature of the visual.
Over the past several years, consumers have become increasingly inundated by marketing messages that fiercely compete for our attention. Desperate to outfox the omnipresent sales pitch, we have learned to filter out the clutter in search of relevant information from credible sources.
At the same time, we are unable to avoid news reports about cutthroat political bashing, corporate scandals, terror threats, and economic uncertainties, all of which have fostered a general distrust in the establishment.
Cumulatively, these environmental forces have left us craving honesty and authenticity. They’ve left us in search of a source we can trust, a superhero in plain clothes. We’ll call him Guru Joe (or Jane).
To better understand this phenomenon and determine how it might change the future of advertising, the Getty Images Creative Research team embarked on a visual study that began in early 2005 and concluded in mid-2006.
First, we looked at more than 2,000 print advertising campaigns originating in Asia, Australia, Europe, South America, and the United States, and found that more than half featured portraits.
From Boeing to AT&T to MasterCard, these ads revealed an emergence of “real” people as the new brand evangelists. They were testimonial, confessional and revelatory, sharing something previously undiscovered with the consumer. Their eyes said “trust me.” Their posture was confident, but not arrogant. They weren’t overtly attractive, but they weren’t unattractive either. They were aspirational, but not unattainable.
We sought to confirm our initial findings by identifying the 500 most frequently licensed images at gettyimages.com. Here again, more than half of the images were portraiture of everyday people expressing an array of qualities and emotions. Each face—whether it conveyed trustworthiness, pride, happiness, surprise or elation—had a story to tell. Perhaps the most famous storyteller among this collection is the elusive Mona Lisa. Her portrait, which has been described as both alluring and aloof, is still wildly popular 500 years after its creation. In fact, over the past 12 months, it has been licensed through Getty Images nearly 100 times.
Eager to analyze qualitative evidence validating our theory, in early 2006 we conducted a survey among 500 creative professionals, including art directors, designers, media planners, art buyers, and film producers. Their responses to our questionnaire revealed a belief that audiences had become skeptical about ”slicked up” advertising centered on artificial heroes. Consumers no longer wanted to see perfection; they wanted to see themselves.
In the final phase of our study, we gathered qualitative information from a sample of 120 customers spanning a variety of industries by creating mood boards, an exercise that aims to establish brand identity through image association.
Not surprisingly, we once again found the prominent presence of Guru Joe. When customers were asked to select images that communicated their companies’ brand values, we saw less imagery visualizing power-suited executives and more visualizing ordinary employees who are generally regarded as the starting point for superb customer satisfaction—further indication of a shift in power from the elitist to the everyman.
How will Guru Joe continue to evolve and change the face of advertising in the future? Increasingly, photo shoots will be cast with off-the-street talent rather than models. We’ll also see a growing number of advertising concepts that rely on the appeal of authentic personal testimony. Fueled by the explosion of “real” people on Flickr and YouTube, the new aesthetic will fuse both conceptual and documentary styles, forming a compelling visual based on abstract realism.