What makes any visual communications interesting?
If the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is true, then it follows that in this age of instant digital marketing the art of visual communications is more important than ever.
What makes any visual communications interesting, what grabs attention and what persuades an audience to sit up and absorb its messaging?
A common denominator of all this can inevitably be an element of sexual attraction. This premise was examined and debated in Vermilion Pinstripes’ webinar “Visual Communications - Does Sex Sell?”
Featuring various examples of TV ads that incorporated sexual themes to sell everything from denim jeans to cars, the webinar explored the themes and principles of visual communications and their deployment in methods of attracting consumer attention.
Seeing is Believing
To define visual communications, we can began from the premise that visual communications give context to stories and expand the meaning of their verbal text.
They attract, get attention and evoke emotions or feelings. A collection of researched facts about the modern marketplace puts the importance of visual communications in perspective.
For nowadays most people are only able to digest small pieces of content, and as a result more than 84 percent of all marketing strategies use visuals such as images, popular GIFs, graphics, animations and signs to pass on information through messaging.
These people only tend to remember 10 percent of what they hear and 20 percent of what they read. However, they actually tend to remember 80 percent of what they see (reference: medium.com).
So, using visual communications saves time in messaging and brings clarity with messages that are simple, clear and memorable.
These messages are also flexible and effective, because different cultures understand images better than languages. They achieve consistency and create better retention of information.
Putting on Your Thinking Cap
To get technical about this whole process it’s interesting to look at the work of Dobromir Rahnev, Professor in the Psychology department at Georgia Institute of Technology, who researched the role of the brain’s front cortex in controlling human vision.
He concluded in his studies that: "The frontal cortex sends a signal to move your attention onto the object you select. It does some of the combining with other information, and then it's probably the primary evaluator of what you think you saw.”
Related studies have shown that to shape perception of something you have to see at least seven times before you register and remember it.
That’s why integrated marketing is so important – it’s not just one ad, but a series of events that remind customers about your brand or product.
The saying “Out of sight, out of mind” is particularly relevant here!
Getting down to basics, a brand’s visual communications assets are composed of a number of integrated components.
In the digital domain there is the website, social profile and cover pictures, social posts, blog visuals, digital newsletters or EDMs, presentation slides, and digital ads.
And on the print side there are business cards and letterheads, marketing brochures, packaging, posters, printed newsletters, event graphics and print ads.
Building visual communications into a brand starts with formulating a brand identity with positioning, personality and messaging.
The next step of forming a visual brand identity involves creation of a logo, selecting typography, visual theme and layout, colour palette, photo and visual style of people and products, and style of illustrations and icons.
The visual communications assets then roll out in digital and print communications.
An example given of all this – although without involving any sexual aspect – was the mattress brand Casper, which used innovative styling across all its visual communications and consumer touch points to reflect the novel aspects of its product and marketing.
Clever Persuasion to Elicit Emotions
It’s generally true that our brains are tired of normal everyday things and constantly seek unusual aspects of life.
Ads that meet this need by challenging normality have a purpose – to turn negative connotations around and present them in a positive light, thus challenging the conventional understanding of that negativity or stupidity.
These ads are attention-grabbers that can use humour or unusual images of beauty to draw interest.
This principle has been used effectively by Apple with its “Think Different” series, the collection of instructional “For Dummies” books, and the Diesel’s “Be Stupid” campaign.
So, the essence of a good visual can be summarised as: having a catchphrase; presented in context of the whole image; drawing attention to another part of the image; and leading the audience to deconstruct the embodied meanings.
Watch this interview where Trevor Beattie, Wonderbra and FCUK ad-man declares an end to the 30-second advert and talks about 5-seconds ideas.
Addressing the overriding theme of the webinar – “Does Sex Sell?” – we now look at how sex is used in advertising.
Iconic representations that create associations of such things as sexuality, youth, power are popular and effective in advertisements, because they appeal to consumers’ emotions.
These associations can be cleverly used to link a product or service with further abstracts such as love, sex, youth, power, rebelliousness, security, glamour, roots, self‐gratification, health, and elitism.
Elements of sexual content in advertisements include nudity, sexual behaviour and elements of physical attractiveness like classic beauty, cuteness, sensuality, the girl or boy-next door and the sex kitten.
The concept of using sexual imagery in advertising was taken to a new extreme recently in New Zealand, where two adult movie stars were used in a government campaign to alert parents to the risks of their children viewing online pornography.
Fashion brand Dolce & Gabbana has been almost no less explicit in its advertising with images of semi-clothed models in provocative poses.
Reining Things In
The downside to all this is that more enlightened attitudes have led to restrictions on this type of advertising. Recently, “Sexist” advertising has been banned in the UK and other countries.
Previous ad formats that showed women in traditional family roles of cooking and doing household chores have been replaced by those showing both men and women taking on these roles.
And Australia’s advertising industry code permits now only permits sexualised poses in ads if women are shown to be “Confident and in control.”
Some research has shown that with ads containing sexual imagery people remember the ad, but importantly, they don’t recall the brand or its message.
A study by Indiana University concluded: “Sexual appeals might thus be less effective advertising tools, less beneficial to marketers and media producers, who should consider the most efficient strategies leading to the highest memory for the advertised brands.”
Turn and Face the Change
In integrated advertising campaigns it’s crucial to understand both your audience and your brand message. In the 21st century this can involve adapting the sex appeal of an ad to meet the demands of changing societal attitudes.
A ruling from the Committee of Advertising Practice has banned gender stereotypes from ads, particularly those that show eroticism, objectification, faceism or machismo.
But a number of advertisers have cleverly adapted to these requirements by reconfiguring their ads with visuals separating sexy from sexist, while still retaining an appealing character.
Examples given of this included Wonderbra swapping out its popular “Hello Boys” campaign to “Hello Me,” showing confidence in women; the Lynx “Find your Magic” men’s ad; the “M Word” from Lloyds Bank; and Original Source shower gel.
Another example of an advertiser making a deft reconfiguration is Cadbury changing its iconic sexually provocative Cadbury Flakes ads to a theme of “Human Kindness.”
Under the Radar
Just as effective as all this overt visual messaging is subliminal advertising, with messages subtly embedded in the overall image. This is seen as psychological manipulation to create wants and desires in consumers’ minds, and is banned in many countries.
Sex became a part of this in an ad for a brand of gin in the UK, where the word “Sex” was embedded into the ice cubes of a gin and tonic.
But possibly the most blatant form of visual communications which is still legal is product placement in TV shows and movies. Any type of product – from a car to a box of cornflakes – can be part of a filmed scene, extending influence to a range of attentive audiences.
A Constant Theme
So, to return to the premise of our webinar, it can be concluded with all the evidence that in the world of visual communications sex does indeed sell – and probably will for years to come.
For despite changing societal norms and attitudes it seems apparent that advertisers will continue to find ways to make sex a potent theme in their campaigns, and that audiences will still find it all appealing.
About the Author
Veronica Lind is the Business and Marketing Strategist of Vermilion Pinstripes - Sales Marketing and Communications. She is the creator of the Modern Marketing Framework that enables local, regional and global executives to sell without selling, build business confidence, and thrive.