When, some little time ago now, I first descended upon the advertising scene, we were a good deal more concerned than most people seem to be today about the nature of the business we found ourselves in. We were always holding debates – in the saloon bar of the Coach & Horses in New Bond Street, to be tiresomely precise – about the meaning of advertising, the significance of advertising, and the past, present and future of advertising. And an unconscionably serious lot we no doubt were. Not to mention drunk.
Among the hardy perennials of our debates was the relevance of sex in advertising, and also the question of whether the copy element in ads was more important than the visual or vice versa.
Of course, these were the days when it was possible for agency personnel to slope off round the pub during working hours and nobody on the management side of things turned so much as a hair at our absence. Just so long as the work got done on time, nobody gave so much as a tinker’s cuss whether you were doing it in the office or down at the dog track. These days, agencies are a little more sanguine in their approach to creative people; and I recently heard of a designer being sacked on the spot for turning up at a client meeting wearing jeans – and I kid you not.
But back to our hardy perennials. The ‘sex in advertising’ question was a hotly debated topic, mainly because the copywriters and designers in my milieu were always anxious to attend the relevant photo-shoots, and not because sex was liable to help sell anything. Thus, we were constantly coming up with speculative ad campaigns that featured semi-clad females so that we might catch a glimpse of a naked thigh or better. Few of these concepts saw the light of day, but it was always worth a try.
As to the copy versus pic argument, this has still not been resolved to this day. Then, as now, I was on the side of the angels, holding that around 80 per cent of ads could, at a pinch, do without illustrations, whereas only about 2 per cent could do without words. (In regard to the other 18 per cent, you can make your own arrangements.)
Such an argument, as you’d expect, was met with widespread alarm by the designers, who saw that I was presaging their redundancy. Then as now, they would do everything they could to give their illustrations the prominence they thought they deserved. This usually resulted in a design in which the pic took up four-fifths of the ad, while the copy was relegated to eight-point solid and rendered practically illegible.
My attitude, obviously, was simply a debating stance – true though it undoubtedly is. I am not suggesting for a moment that 8 out of 10 ads should be wholly typographical. But if you take a dispassionate look around you, you might agree with me that a whole lot of ads (and brochures and websites, too, come to that) carry pictures for pictures’ sake; and that in quite a few cases the pictures, far from helping the transmission of a message, actually hinder it.
The biggest offenders in this respect are what might be describes as semi-industrial ads. Just leaf through a trade mag (or brochure or website) and you’ll see irrelevance in illustration well carried out. You’ll see, for instance, pictures of the factory or, as they call it these days, the production operation. You’ll see pics of two obvious male models in white coats staring idiotically at a computer screen or a blueprint. And you’ll see pics of two obvious male models, plus a female model, in white coats staring idiotically at a computer screen. The female is included in the latter pic because the designer had originally planned for her to be shot with her clothes off.
Here’s what I think. With today’s wonderful digital photography opportunities, with an instant replay of whatever has been shot, one might hope that illustrations in ads, brochures and websites might be made more relevant. They might actually show the product in action – demonstration is, after all, the soul of advertising. But, no, we still get pics which have nothing whatsoever to do with the product or its benefits.
I don’t mind admitting that there can be few people in the whole wide world who know less about photography than I do. What I do know, however, is that promotional material is far better off without an illustration if that illustration does not augment the sales message. So, in this respect, copy is more important than illustration.
Mind you, there is a lot of copy around that doesn’t augment the sales message either. But that’s another story.