Images evoke memories and connect people
Prof. Dr.-Ing. Fabian Hemmert in the Jahr100Wissen interview about the advertising slogan "A look is worth a thousand words".
"A glance is worth a thousand words" is an advertising slogan that appeared in an advertising magazine on December 8, 1921, by Fred R. Barnard and was intended to make readers aware of the added value of images over exclusive texts. Later, the phrase was modified to "A picture is worth a thousand words." Can you prove that?
Hemmert: For that, you would have to count the words that a picture could say. But it's about the difference that pictures can do some things particularly well and words can do other things particularly well. And depending on what one wants to say, one prefers to use a picture instead of a word.
What advantage does the image have over the text?
Hemmert: We humans are very visually oriented and often can't get enough of a picture. A word is much more strenuous for us to interpret. You have to read it, transpose the word you hear in your head, and then grasp the meaning. That's at least one more level of abstraction. A French speaker will perhaps use different words than a German or English speaker.
With a picture, like in a photo camera, light rays are captured in the eye, temporarily stored and then transported further. So if a French person takes a picture, it will look the same in the same situation. Language means a lot more interpretation work for us. But it also has advantages, because I can be very precise with words. For example, if I have a photo of something to eat and I actually want to point out that this dish tastes totally bland or too spicy, I can't necessarily see that in the picture. But if I say, imagine biting into a lemon, then saliva production actually starts on the tongue. That's also where words can reach us more easily, because they can trigger many areas of the brain.
At the time, advertisers were not aware that images were more effective in advertising, because old ads were bursting with text. The first ideas for pure images came when streetcars were adorned with advertising and then suddenly the strategies didn't work. Why not?
Hemmert: Because the streetcars simply drove away, and that was a problem. You can't read that fast, and you have to be able to grasp it. Today you can see it in the example of social media, nothing works without a picture. It's because our attention span is much shorter. We can simply perceive images much faster.
That's how the slogan "One look is worth a thousand words" came about. So there's a lot of psychology in that, too, isn't there?
Hemmert: There's a lot of cognitive psychology in it, i.e. how quickly can I grasp something, how much does it move me, but also how well can I ignore something. That's not just the case in advertising. A tendency towards the visual can be found in all means of reproduction; large-format printing was suddenly possible at that time and allowed unprecedented pictorial testimonies. What has not changed, however, is our brain. There are things like mirror neurons. We see an action in another person, then neurologically feel the same sensations and are wired for empathy, so to speak. That's what people are doing in advertising. We see successful people and we want to be like them. This is the halo effect. Here, we conclude from known characteristics of a person to unknown ones. For example, we see that a successful person uses a certain shampoo and then we want to have that, too. It implies, so to speak, the desire to participate in the user's success on the basis of the product.
It is often said that advertising experts rarely invent anything, they prefer to find things. Is that the case?
Hemmert: Advertising experts presumably want above all for us to feel at home in the world that is created or invented in advertising.
Today we know that Barnard also "found" instead of "invented." The saying is first found in Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev's 1862 novel Fathers and Sons, and in it it reads, "The picture shows me at a glance what it would take dozens of pages of a book to explain." But for advertising, this little cheat was sustainable, wasn't it?
Hemmert: There's a great game that makes it possible to experience the gap between words and pictures. It's called "Silent Post Extreme. Here, you always have to alternate between drawing and writing something. The first person draws a picture, passes it on, the next person writes on the following page what he or she has seen and now passes on the word. This goes on for a few rounds and the result is always something different, because every translation brings mistakes with it. The perception of each individual is also different.
If you look at advertising today, that was valid for a long time. An interesting countermovement can be observed if you look at chatbots in social media. Here, they often try to manipulate opinions using only words. They don't show pictures precisely because they don't want to be perceived like advertising; they want to be perceived like real people.
Where do you think advertisers find their inspiration today?
Hemmert: If advertising means selling people things they don't need, for money they don't have, to impress people they don't like, then that inspiration is to be found in people's needs. It's scary that Facebook, for example, as one of the richest corporations in the world, doesn't have a product that it sells - except advertising. Advertising is only worthwhile if it manipulates opinion. And that seems to work, whether for products or for political interests.
But images can also be used therapeutically. In a current university project funded by the BMBF (German Federal Ministry of Education and Research), we are working with other partners to develop a system for seniors in retirement homes who can look at old photos together with their grandchildren via virtual reality conferencing. The family photo album reinvented - in the context of dementia prevention. Here in particular, pictures have a very important meaning, because they awaken memories and provide topics for conversation. We know today that the subconscious can be activated very well by pictures. In this context, images promote memory and create connections to other people. And here we come back to our initial question, because in these cases a picture really is worth a thousand words.
Uwe Blass (conversation from 10/15/2021)
Prof. Dr.-Ing Fabian Hemmert studied media design and interface design in Bielefeld and Potsdam. He earned his doctorate in Berlin. Since 2016, he has been Professor of Interface and User Experience Design at the University of Wuppertal.