Will images replace words in web advertising?

At the risk of dredging up old news, I must respond to the POV by Gary Schenk in the January issue of Creativity. It was a real hackle-raiser. Mr. Shenk articulates an across-the-board dismissal of language (or "text" as he insists on calling it) in advertising as some old school artifact or vestige of a bygone era, which is now being supplanted online by imagery.

I find this both silly and scary (to speak nothing of transparently self-serving, given that Mr. Shenk is the CEO of Corbis.)

It's one thing to point out the obvious, that the web is becoming and will continue to become more visually interesting, with imagery playing an increasingly important role in helping to deliver messages. I join Mr. Shenk in welcoming the increase in imagery on the web, as well as the corresponding reduction in dry, cold, and overly lengthy language that occurs in so many contexts on the web.

But it’s an entirely different thing to proclaim, as Mr. Shenk does, that "imagery alone can send a powerful message" or that "imagery is accelerating as the shorthand for communicating messages and conveying meaning."

What Mr. Shenk seems not to understand, is that even the most powerful, evocative image is entirely without value as a commercial communication device, absent the accompanying language that informs and interprets that image. Language, sometimes as little as one word, is necessary to imbue the image with a particular meaning in order to deliver the advertiser's intended message.

The Dove campaign for real beauty (which Mr. Shenk invokes as proof that it's all about the image) proves, instead, precisely the opposite point. The body of images that comprise that campaign would be nothing but a collection of nice photos of women, without the unifying concept of "real beauty" to guide the viewer in interpreting the images in relation to the brand and its message. To define and convey the concept of real beauty, it must be articulated with, you know, words. That's precisely what language does, while imagery without language, does not and cannot.

The stock images and footage that Mr. Shenk hawks, regardless of how rich, compelling, provocative, beautiful, true or cool they may be, must always, by their nature, be relegated to the role of handmaiden to language. As visually oriented as advertising communication—in print, online or within any other medium—may become, it is only via language that it can be made to convey, not just some meaning, but the very specific meaning intended by the advertiser.

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