The Big Lie – the complete book online - 12 Visualisation

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Chapter 12

They Laughed When I Sat Down at the Word Processor

Visualisation

I have always been suspicious of the cliché about one picture being worth a thousand words . . . Pictures produce impact, writing adds meaning.

Ladislas (Lucien) Aigner, photo-journalist

Dorothy Sayers’s 1930s novel Murder Must Advertise, describes the way advertisements used to be put together. First, they were written. For example, like this:

 

It has a wonderful winning way. It means so much. It costs so little . . . In it you find the happy answer to thirst. A taste thrill. A quick, wholesome little lift when you need one. It fits so naturally into a pause, from work or play, and leaves you cool and refreshed . . . Ready ice-cold at eight hundred thousand soda fountains and refreshment stands. Popular demand put it there. Everybody welcomes the pause that refreshes . . . so will you.

 

After he had composed his thoughts on paper, the copywriter would ask an illustrator to provide a suitable decoration. The 1930s American magazine advertisement for Coca-Cola quoted above, was accompanied by a photograph of an elegant young lady and a smiling sodajerk.

In Britain, advertising copywriters used to be graduates of the old universities, with degrees in classics – including Dorothy Sayers. They wanted to write novels and saw writing ads as something to do in the meantime. But words have to be read. They are poor transmitters of sensual experience. The development of photography, innovations in printing, and television shifted the balance irretrievably to the visual experience. The golden age of copywriting is dead. Today, Coca-Cola achieves sensory impact with an explosion of colourful images, music, and action. These communications aren’t read, they happen. And the people who create them are turned on by graphics, not syntax.

While people will always read something that captures and sustains their interest, in general they read less and less. Carefully chiselled copy arguments linger on in the business press on the perhaps too hopeful assumption that busy executives read a lot – they probably do, but mostly documents, and these must have a single-page summary in the front. You can read long copy arguments on tube platforms, too, where people have time to kill. Everywhere else, inexorably, the power of the visual impression has triumphed. In medieval times the mass of people were illiterate. So stained-glass images and statuary were used to decode the Scriptures for them. Today, the comic book, action movies, television entertainment, and advertising have reverted to iconic literacy.

In the 1996 Reith lectures Professor Jean Aitchison, the Rupert Murdoch Professor of Language and Communication at Oxford University, pointed out the limitations of words: “Language is good at transferring some types of data, especially negative reports, such as ‘No buses will run on Sunday’, provided the speaker is telling the truth. But it’s bad at other types, especially spatial information, and bad at conveying pain or emotion. It’s typical of behaviour that is biologically programmed: it has evolved to deal with some things, not others, just as rabbits nibble grass but don’t crack nuts”.

Imagery, not words, appears to be our natural conceptual tool. A survey of forty eminent American mathematicians was undertaken in 1945 to investigate their processes of thought. Only two replied that they worked out ideas in verbal terms or algebraic symbols. All of the others thought visually. In the words of one scientist: “The words of the language as they are written or spoken do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought, which relies on more or less clear images of a visual and some of a muscular type”. That respondent was Dr Albert Einstein.

Visual ideas stick in the memory better. While people find it difficult to remember words in isolation, they have remarkable image recall. Researchers who showed 10,000 images to people just once each, found that those people could recognise almost all of them a week later.1 Even the simplest images can exert profound emotional power. In 1957, a series of gigantic silhouettes of black bulls began to appear on the Spanish landscape, visible from miles away. Painted on each sheet metal bull were the words “Osborne Veterano Brandy”. In time 500 of them bestrode the Spanish countryside. In 1988, when a law was passed banning advertising within sight of rural highways, the advertiser simply blacked out the brand name. By that time everyone knew what brand the silhouettes were advertising. Now unlabelled, the huge fighting bull with its horns spearing the skyline was blacker, mysterious – a mythic icon. It was rumoured that barren couples made love in the shadow of its massive cojones, and in the film Jamón Jamón a character scaled its scaffolding to shatter them symbolically. In 1994, when the Spanish transport minister declared that the bulls must finally go, he aroused a storm of intellectual protest. Leading artists described it as a national symbol of Spanish virility. Journalists waxed lyrical: “It is the protective shadow of the fields of Spain . . . in communion with the space it occupies”. The political row was eventually won by the Minister of Culture, who declared “the bull has gained an aura only exuded by works of art”, and the Osborne advertising symbol was spared as a national treasure.

Successful advertising, like successful politics, depends on reducing complex ideas to simple ones. The simplification is dramatic and usually visual, e.g. the shape of a bull. Even at its best, a television commercial cannot communicate a message of any complexity. Invariably, it draws on the common shorthand of popular culture, history, and mythology, using symbols everyone recognises. Our brains were developed to respond to sensory stimuli, of which vision became the most important. Speech developed much later, while the written word is a thoroughly modern invention which is still not universal. So, people think in symbols because it’s easier. Wear a beret in England and you’re assumed to be a Frenchman. If you happen to be carrying a loaf of French bread, it’s deemed a certainty. National stereotypes are endemic in advertising: selfish Germans hogging sunloungers, laconic Australians in wide-brimmed hats, and naive Americans in spangled trousers. Ask a Continental art director to draw an Englishman and he will produce a figure with a clipped moustache and a rolled umbrella, wearing the chapeau melon popularised by James and George Lock, hatters of St James’s Street, 150 years ago. You’ll see this figure everywhere on the Continent, in advertisements for tea, marmalade, or holidays in Britain. Brief your average British art director on a financial advertisement and his first doodle will be the same figure, although the bowler hat has been virtually extinct in the City of London since the mid-1970s. In Adland a “monster” deal inevitably suggests a visit to Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory, and any mention of energy seems to require the presence of a white-shock-haired Einstein impersonator.

One of the visual impressions which attracts us most strongly is the human face and form. While it is easy to ignore a picture of an object, it is impossible not to glance at, for example, a woman’s face reproduced larger than life, as in the 1999 press advertisements for Egg, a banking division of Prudential. Yet this is an exception. Take any edition of any national newspaper and examine all the pictures used to support editorial matter. At least two-thirds of them will feature the human face or figure, very often in close-up.2 Now go through all the advertisements. The proportions will be roughly in reverse: a minority of the ads will show a person. Advertisements tend to feature products, which puts them at a disadvantage in attracting attention within the same environment. Newspaper photographers and editors tend to show people because experience tells them that they have to humanise their story. They know that readers always want to know what other people look like. Why? Recognition of friends and enemies, possible mates and potential competitors, has always been essential to survival. Experiments conducted in 1999 by Tim Valentine, professor of psychology at Goldsmiths’ College, London, concluded that human capacity for facial recognition is so quickly learned, so accurate and durable, that it is a plausible substitute for passwords and PINs for use as personal authentication in systems such as automatic teller machines, computers, and the Internet.

An advertising agency art director earns his salt by creating powerful visual images. Typically, his or her overriding belief is that the objective of the advertisement is to gain attention at any price. More profound questions are of scant interest. Most of those who must approve and authorise this advertising share similar views. So, inevitably, many advertising images are irrelevant, distract from the intended message, or completely overwhelm it. Often the link between thought and illustration founders on the ambiguities of language. The British Gas campaign of 1993 and 1994, aiming to convey the idea that you can regulate a gas flame better than an electric burner, attempted to demonstrate the concept of “control”. However, instead of physical precision, what it chose to illustrate in a series of vignettes was that British obsession, people exerting social control to gain the upper hand in confrontations with others.

In striving to make a connection at a rational level, advertisers often seem oblivious to the emotional impact of the illustrations they choose. Powerful images easily arouse anxieties which conflict with the advertiser’s purpose. Absurdly, National Power, which you might expect would be exquisitely sensitive to hostile public attitudes about high-voltage power lines, in terms of both visual impact and suspicions about harmful radiation, chose to introduce itself on television in the 1990s with dramatic imagery derived from H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds: electric power pylons stalked the countryside like giant robots, emitting electric flashes from mechanical tentacles.

A television commercial promoting the former Leicester Polytechnic lifted a memorably bloodthirsty scene from a BBC wildlife programme which showed a panicky group of seals desperately flopping onto the shore to escape a voracious piebald whale, which then walloped down onto the beach in pursuit. The allegory expressed by the voice-over commentary was that these terrified seals were actually confident, and had survived because they had a university degree. Applying this kind of reasoning, arresting footage could be used to illustrate almost any argument, and some people have tried. In the 1980s a syndicated television advertising service was launched in the UK under the name TV-Link. It offered a library of secondhand commercials for hire. One showed an orang-utan apparently reacting to a voice-over by making sceptical faces. Originally made for the South Carolina Federal Bank, it had been sold to more than forty other clients in the US and elsewhere, including the German Christian Democratic Party.

The progress of wars used to be measured in sterile propaganda announcements of body counts. The Vietnam War escalated the power of visual imagery. Pictures of atrocities and dead Americans created a revulsion which stopped a war. Ever since, in trouble spots like Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo, real pictures in real time have shaped government policy from day to day. Language has shrunk to the caption or soundbite, vivid words which conjure up an image to touch the senses, like the phrase “the iron curtain” which Winston Churchill used to describe Soviet domination descending over Europe in his Fulton, Missouri speech of 1946. The role of words in advertising today is similar: to encapsulate a distinctive brand identity in a slogan, which is amplified by visual content: “Australians wouldn’t give a XXXX for anything else”, “Vorsprung durch Technik”, “It’s a lot less bovver than a hovver”, “You’ve been Tango’d”. And as brand differentiation has come to depend more and more on evocations of lifestyle, slogans have descended to vague inspirational Americanised exhortations such as Nike’s “Just do it” or Holsten Beer’s “Get real”. Clients usually insist on adding slogans or “strap-lines” to their advertisements, if only to convince themselves that they are making some kind of statement. Many advertising “creatives” resist them, feeling they are corny and unsophisticated. Levi Jeans and Pepsi-Cola dispensed with slogans entirely, relying on the visual style of their commercials as a badge of identity.

The craft of the copywriter has suffered insult as well as injury. Art directors and particularly typographers, that subspecies which deals particularly with the selection of typography, have little interest in the content of words, which they rarely read. To them, what the text looks like is what counts. This is why so many press ads are often unreadable.

A procession of visual styles glides through the generations at a stately pace, new fashions heaving over the horizon with each change of tide of the Zeitgeist. The ambience is so pervasive that one can usually date advertisements to their approximate decade simply by their general appearance. The advertisements of the 1970s, flared and ballooned in innocent primary colours, came off the same drawingboards as the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. As the millennium approached, the industry appeared to be reviving the iconography of the 1950s: the flat, sketchy style of a Mr Magoo cartoon decorated with panels scissored from pastel-coloured oblongs and naive, curly typography. Over the decades in between, advertising art directors and typographers had been liberated, then obsessed and enslaved, by Apple Mac technology. Typographers were traditionally backroom boys obsessed with fine issues not apparent to most readers, such as the shape and spacing of letters. In the 1990s they stepped into the limelight. Inspired by the chutzpah of the designers who put together avant-garde magazines such as Face, they seized the opportunity to flaunt their creative skills, garnishing headlines and sprinkling visual zest throughout the text by changing the type size of some individual letters or words, putting others in a different face or colour, twisting and spinning them, enlivening the message to the point of incomprehensibility.

This explosive typography, reflecting the nervy, clashing, restless idiom of the music video, is designed to be looked at rather than read or understood. It is often defended as appealing to the fleeting concentration span of the fast-forward generation, but now contorts the advertising of even the most staid organisations. A 1990s advertisement for an insurance company, Commercial Union, was embellished with a huge initial capital occupying a full column width, to begin a meandering account of a golf course mishap in the style of Punch magazine. This text was entirely in italic, which is notoriously difficult to read in large swathes, and decorated with further impediments to legibility: captions running vertically, reversed white out of black, and the random insertion of boldface, all-caps, and varying typefaces. The company’s slogan, “We won’t make a drama out of a crisis”, was precisely contradicted by the effect of this dynamic typography.

Trendy typographers also dislike conventional paragraphs, which, because they vary in length, may be awkward visually. Where they cannot eliminate continuity by reducing the copy to short individual elements, they are inclined to run all the text together in a solid, unreadable block. An Air Miles ad also dispensed with initial capitals to start new sentences, though it did not go so far as removing full stops to end them.

The argument against these self-indulgent excesses is not simply aesthetic, but physiological. Typographers frequently place paragraphs of text in blocks of dark colour, where they have to be reversed out in white. The human eye finds this extremely difficult to read. They are also often cavalier about scan, which is the length of a line across a page. The brain begins to experience difficulty in comprehension when a line contains more than fourteen to sixteen words. This is why books, apart from picture books, are printed in vertical rather than horizontal format. And why newspapers have columns, rather than simply extending the words all across the page. Serious scan-width problems are the hallmark of the amateur advertiser. You will encounter them in manifestos published by protest groups, for example, where the text may extend the full width of the newspaper. The advertiser might as well print his copy in Sanskrit, because it is impossible to try to read an over-width scan without irritation and brain-pain.

Yet impossibly wide scan also issues forth from major advertisers who employ prestigious advertising agencies. Not just in the small-text legal disclaimers at the bottom of the ad, which are not intended to be read, but in the body text, which presumably is. A 1995 advertisement for Sun Alliance had a paragraph with an average scan of twenty-two words and another for First Direct Bank had twenty-three. These communications appeared in the same issue of the Independent, a newspaper with a conventional column width accommodating an average of five or six words. A 1998 campaign by a consortium called “All the phone companies together” contained more than 300 words of information about changing telephone numbers. Across a ten-inch span the chosen type size generated 25 words per line. A 1999 ad for Mazda cars averaged forty-two words per line. A 1996 ad for the international airline TWA ran its text across the full width of a broadsheet page in six-point type. This resulted in an average scan of fifty-four words per line. The initial sentiment of the text, which was reversed out of red, provoking further eye-strain, was: “Your comfort is as important to us as it is to you”.

If you are not convinced, try reading the next page, which while retaining the same type size, extends the scan only modestly, from an average of eleven words per line to seventeen.

The instant visual metaphor, and its handmaiden, the visually contorted written message, now dominate advertising. But in downgrading or discarding text, the motivational argument is often lost as well. Readers are only rarely exposed to a rational, reasoned argument, such as the 1998 press campaign for Timberland shoes, which used detail, demonstration, and logic in full-page advertisements to expound on what the manufacturer knows about shoes and create an assurance of authority. New generations have been brought up on television, and their attention spans have been shrunk by slam-dunk pop video presentations, psychedelic club imagery, the distressed design of pop magazines, and the kaleidoscopic imagery of MTV, the pop music TV station, which has erased the boundary between entertainment and advertising. Its content is one enormous commercial, designed to promote music. Amongst the wall-to-wall music videos and fashion and cosmetic commercials, the station ID appears: a metal butterfly lands on a book and spreads its wings, showing the MTV logo, and then a green woman flicks out her long tongue and swallows it. The people who now make TV advertising in Britain have grown up with this stuff.

In both television and press, the visual style of presentation has become the message. Sometimes there is no idea behind it which is capable of articulation. When there is, often the image is so powerful it perverts the intention of the advertiser. Some of the best-known and most applauded campaigns are in this category. Motor-car ads often fail effectively to harness their breathless romantic imagery, such as a vehicle racing in silhouette against a burning cornfield, to a brand name. Others cram so many curious, compelling or grotesque images into thirty seconds that they overwhelm the message. A shotgun blast of images cutting from lightning to polar bear to firestorm to shark actually has something to do with a beer called Grolsch. In 1995 Eurostar announced the rail connection of Britain to the Continent in a TV campaign which resisted the temptation to convey any information about this astonishing event in favour of parading bizarre science-fiction images through a train carriage. It was widely criticised as incomprehensible.

The greatest influence on “creatives” is the cinema. Most are dedicated cineastes, and they scavenge feature films for ideas. A 1990s commercial in which a series of people repeatedly filled an Ariston washing-machine was taken from an obscure Polish film. A sixty-second 1992 television commercial in which a young man wearing only Levi’s jeans undertook a marathon journey from one swimming pool to another was the central idea of a recondite 1969 Burt Lancaster vehicle called The Swimmer. In a 1999 commercial for Miller beer, the rhythm of a squeaking bedstead

The instant visual metaphor, and its handmaiden, the visually contorted written message, now dominate advertising. But in downgrading or discarding text, the motivational argument is often lost as well. Readers are only rarely exposed to a rational, reasoned argument, such as the 1998 press campaign for Timberland shoes, which used detail, demonstration, and logic in full-page advertisements to expound on what the manufacturer knows about shoes and create an assurance of authority. New generations have been brought up on television, and their attention spans have been shrunk by slam-dunk pop video presentations, psychedelic club imagery, the distressed design of pop magazines, and the kaleidoscopic imagery of MTV, the pop music TV station, which has erased the boundary between entertainment and advertising. Its content is one enormous commercial, designed to promote music. Amongst the wall-to-wall music videos and fashion and cosmetic commercials, the station ID appears: a metal butterfly lands on a book and spreads its wings, showing the MTV logo, and then a green woman flicks out her long tongue and swallows it. The people who now make TV advertising in Britain have grown up with this stuff.

In both television and press, the visual style of presentation has become the message. Sometimes there is no idea behind it which is capable of articulation. When there is, often the image is so powerful it perverts the intention of the advertiser. Some of the best-known and most applauded campaigns are in this category. Motor-car ads often fail effectively to harness their breathless romantic imagery, such as a vehicle racing in silhouette against a burning cornfield, to a brand name. Others cram so many curious, compelling or grotesque images into thirty seconds that they overwhelm the message. A shotgun blast of images cutting from lightning to polar bear to firestorm to shark actually has something to do with a beer called Grolsch. In 1995 Eurostar announced the rail connection of Britain to the Continent in a TV campaign which resisted the temptation to convey any information about this astonishing event in favour of parading bizarre science-fiction images through a train carriage. It was widely criticised as incomprehensible.

The greatest influence on “creatives” is the cinema. Most are dedicated cineastes, and they scavenge feature films for ideas. A 1990s commercial in which a series of people repeatedly filled an Ariston washing-machine was taken from an obscure Polish film. A sixty-second 1992 television commercial in which a young man wearing only Levi’s jeans undertook a marathon journey from one swimming pool to another was the central idea of a recondite 1969 Burt Lancaster vehicle called The Swimmer. In a 1999 commercial for Miller beer, the rhythm of a squeaking bedstead resonated in the activities of the other residents of a block of flats; the idea was taken from the cult French film Delicatessen. The futuristic imagery of the 1920s masterpiece Metropolis has been recycled for many products, from lagers to computers. Yet cinema-going is a minority popular culture: only about half of UK adults go to the cinema more than once a year; frequent attendance is heavily concentrated in the age group 7-34. Although most films end up being shown on TV, there is a time-lag for current releases, and most television viewers are unaware of recherché art house films, which means that many artfully contrived filmic references may simply escape many television viewers.

Although in 2000 press advertising still accounted for over half of all advertising revenues in the UK, and television just 27 per cent, in the onslaught of visual imagery the power of static press advertising has waned. From time to time the Newspaper Publishers’ Association attempts to stem the tide with the gestures of King Canute, arguing that newsprint has longevity and can present information in depth. Its 1993 advertising headlined “What the TV ads don’t tell you about shampoos” pointed out that, unlike “glossy” commercials, press ads convey product knowledge about details such as pH balance. The clinching argument, according to this campaign, was that in the usual time span of a television commercial, thirty seconds, you can only read aloud about forty-five words. Which is hardly the point. For an example of effective press advertising, the NPA had to reach thirty years into the past for David Ogilvy’s famous long-copy advertisement headlined: “At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock”. His fact-crammed approach seems a lost art today. Yet for firms hoping to influence the selection of increasingly mystifying products such as computers, mobile phones, and digital cameras, the provision of straightforward information before purchase is as essential as good after-sales service.

Also neglected is the opportunity to create a quiet, persuasive mood through verbal imagery, for example this 1990s patch of purplish prose for the J. Peterman’s catalogue, a regular advertiser in upmarket American magazines:

 

He told me about her; told me more than I would have told anyone. They met on the Atlantic coast of Ireland, near Cashel Bay, at a remote hotel. She’d left her husband (a Duke the rumours said. They were almost right). She’d left a note: “Don’t worry”, it said. “I’ll be OK”, it said.

 

It went on in this vein for about 300 words, only two of which, “Norfolk jacket”, concerned the product. But every phrase evoked the romantic snobbery which fashion advertisers trade upon.

 

Copywriters and art directors used to learn their trade working for low pay on the staff of big department stores, where they had to produce advertisements for daily newspapers and catalogues which moved goods off counters. Now they serve their apprenticeship watching television and going to the cinema. No wonder the emphasis in advertising has shifted from selling to entertainment. Yet something has been lost to the craft. Writing can create imagined images which are uniquely personal in the mind of each reader. Just as radio can. Explicit visuals cannot.

When advertisers have something really important to say, they turn to the press medium, discarding all the usual visual flummery for a straightforward announcement, in words only. That’s because they don’t want it to be confused with “advertising”, which by implication is unrealistic, irrelevant, and unimportant. In effect, they are saying “That’s enough larking about, this is serious, so now sit up and pay attention”. Typical was the notice issued by Zanussi dishwashers in 1998: all-copy, a spartan layout prepared on a word processor, its only visual a diagram to show where to find the model number on the appliance, plus a telephone number for obtaining a free safety check. Within a context of hyperbolic advertisements, the stark simplicity of the product recall announcement shrieks: “Important”.

Visual communication has great impact because it compresses and symbolises meaning; but it is now regularly used in advertising as a substitute for meaning.

1 L. Standing, “Learning 10,000 Pictures”, Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 25 (1973), pp. 207-22.

2 A 1999 study by the advertising agency Publicis examined all editorial photographs appearing in nine British national newspapers over a four-week period. Eighty-nine per cent showed people.