by Bonnie Buol Ruszczyk, president
If you’ve known bbr marketing a while, you know how we feel about stock photography. We’ve written about the drawbacks that come with relying too heavily on these generic images rather than photographs of your real staff and space in the past. While pictures are wonderful to help you communicate your message and take advantage of the “one picture = 1000 words” dictum, taking the easy way out by purchasing cheap stock photos definitely isn’t a good way to go. We are big fans of using photos of the real people in your office rather than the perfectly coifed, smiling stock people you find all over the place. Your staff may not be quite as slickly photogenic as the stock models, but they have the advantage of being real human beings with character that comes through. As an added bonus, when clients come to your office, they will see consistency between your marketing materials and the people they meet there.
That’s why we found this story so amusing that we laughed out loud, loving the way perfectly illustrates the dangers of using stock photography. It seems that the Republican party created a nationwide ad campaign intended to attract more African American voters, among others who don’t traditionally vote for conservative candidates. Somewhat similar to the “I am Mormon” campaign created during the last election cycle, it aimed to point out that Republicans come in all flavors in an attempt to overcome the misconception that the GOP is a party for older white people. It’s a pretty good idea, and one that could be effective if executed well. It wasn’t.
Instead of seeking out actual black Republicans to feature in the marketing campaign, they went to istockphoto.com, one of the cheapest and most highly used image vendors, and purchased an image of a lovely, young black woman to use in the Republicans Are Black ad. It didn’t take very long for this news fact to be noticed, due in part to the fact that the image had been used by others in different advertisements. Soon the campaign was being mocked by late night talk show hosts and parodied all across the social media world.
So while their goal was a fine one, their choice to go with a cheap, overused stock image created an effect exactly opposite to the outcome they desired. They wanted to appeal to black voters but instead, African Americans are largely appalled by the poor effort, as are most others. The reactions I’ve heard include variations of the basic statement that this episode is just lame. “So you couldn’t find even ONE real black Republican to photograph for your campaign?” “If you have to buy a stock image, it must mean Republicans really aren’t black and your campaign is built on a lie.” Or “Seriously, how cheap do you have to be, and how stupid do you think we are?”
Though it was the Republican party that got stung with this one, they’re not the only group to fall for the same trap. I’ve seen quite a few similar situations over the years. As a strategic marketer, it’s hard for me to understand how this type of ridiculous decision-making doesn’t get vetoed at some point along the way. With so many moving parts and players in a national campaign of this size, wasn’t there anyone who felt the need to speak up and point out how poor this decision was? And if the advice was simply ignored, shame on everyone who didn’t listen and understand what an awful idea it was to go with cheap stock photography! All the money spent on that marketing campaign was completely wasted and the admirable goal of appealing to a wider swath of voters was an utter failure. Instead, the campaign is officially a laughingstock. (No pun intended.)
The moral is clear: Avoid stock photography. If you do decide to use it, be very, very careful.