Looking at Adverts: 13

The impact of photographs, particularly photographs of violence and suffering, has long been debated. In the essay In Plato’s Cave Susan Sontag describes how photographs from the concentration camps of World War Two physically affected her; she was shocked and horrified by what she saw. But she says that we become desensitised to images of suffering if we see too many of them, over-saturation causes their impact to diminish and they become banal.  Sontag says ‘photographs shock insofar as they show something novel. Unfortunately, the ante keeps getting raised – partly through the very proliferation of such images of horror.’ (1977 P19) This suggests that photographs of war, natural disaster and other humanitarian crises make the events seem familiar but remote. We are aware that they are happening but we also know they are happening somewhere else so they actually make us feel safe and secure rather than shocked and impelled to take action. Although I generally think this is the case, I recently came across some advertising campaigns that made me think again.

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In 2014 Amnesty International commissioned an advertising campaign to raise awareness of humanitarian crises and the abuse of human rights taking place around the globe. The posters were installed in 200 locations across Zurich. The advertising company (Pius Walker, creative director) came to the conclusion that people find it easier to identify with issues if they are presented to the audience in a local setting. I think this cleverly disrupts the desensitisation that Sontag talks about. The adverts bring the crises much closer to home, reducing the feeling of ‘safe distance’ that a similar image in a newspaper might produce. The adverts depict a person or people, acting out some of the global issues that Amnesty International campaign against, but the individuals are superimposed into the location in which each poster is installed. This creates an illusion that the subject or subjects, and the human rights abuses they signify are located in Zurich.

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Photographs of global crises are taken and disseminated to inform people and hopefully encourage them to take action that will relieve the issue. Although the prevalence of shocking photographs can reduce the impact of images of atrocity I think the Amnesty International adverts have an impact because they are photographs. Sontag describes how photographs differ from other forms of figurative visual representation (such as drawing or painting). She says ‘photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we’re shown a photograph of it…A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened.’ (1977 P5) This is because of the particularity of a photograph. A painting or drawing of a person could be based on a number of different people or have derived solely from the artists’ imagination, but a photograph of a person depicts a real person. Sontag borrows some of her ideas about ‘photographic truth’ from Roland Barthes seminal photography essay Camera Lucida. In this text Barthes says the things depicted in photographs are not ‘optionally real’ as they are in paintings, but ‘necessarily real’, he says ‘in Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there.’ (1980 p76-7) I think this is key to the power of photography; its ability to make you acknowledge that something is really taking place somewhere in the world. The Amnesty International campaign was effective because it suggests that the abuses are really happening whilst bringing the ‘somewhere in the world’ closer to home.

The adverts harness the ‘realness’ of photography to create the illusion that the viewer isn’t actually looking at a photograph at all. We know we are looking at something that has been ‘faked’ but the moment before we identify and unravel the illusion, we are shocked by what we see. The notion of photographic truth is used and disrupted at the same time.

As I was researching for this blog I found some other advertising campaigns that also use illusion, installation and the close proximity of the image to cause an impact. I would be interested to know which you think are most successful and why.

Global Action In The Interest of Animals: Plastic Bags Kill Advertising Agency: BBDO Malaysia, MALAYSIA, Kuala Lumpur / Advertising Agency: Duval Guillaume, Belgium

Global Action In The Interest of Animals: Plastic Bags Kill
Advertising Agency: BBDO Malaysia, MALAYSIA, Kuala Lumpur / Advertising Agency: Duval Guillaume, Belgium

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See how easy feeding the hungry can be?
Advertising Agency: TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris, Johannesburg, South Africa

The Prevention Beer Mug: Please Don’t Lose Control Over Your Drinking Advertising Agency: EURORSCG Prague, Czech Republic

The Prevention Beer Mug: Please Don’t Lose Control Over Your Drinking
Advertising Agency: EURORSCG Prague, Czech Republic

For The Homeless, Every Day Is A Struggle Advertising Agency: Clemenger BBDO, Melbourne, Australia

For The Homeless, Every Day Is A Struggle
Advertising Agency: Clemenger BBDO, Melbourne, Australia

 Torture Victims Are People Just Like You And Me Advertising Agency: Advico Y&R, Zurich, Switzerland

Torture Victims Are People Just Like You And Me
Advertising Agency: Advico Y&R, Zurich, Switzerland

 

 

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13 comments for “Looking at Adverts: 13

  1. rattenfenger
    12 November 2015 at 10:24 am

    Hi Dawn

    this is really interesting. I was particularly interested in the plastic bag image you took photos off in relation to wildlife and plastics : Global Action In The Interest of Animals: Plastic Bags Kill Advertising Agency: BBDO Malaysia, MALAYSIA, Kuala Lumpur / Advertising Agency: Duval Guillaume, Belgium
    My own practice in drawing and painting has been and continues to be concerned with this area, and I am preparing a big public and student lecture on my practice in a few week’s time at my other place of work (Ulster Uni). Would you allow me to use your image if I credit it? Obviously I would also credt the advertising agencies.
    Doris

  2. 12 November 2015 at 8:23 pm

    Hi Doris, none of the images are mine so you are welcome to use them if you credit the agency – and also feel free to mention the blog should your audience members be interested in the subject! Could you put a link to your work – I would love to see how you approach the subject.

    • rattenfenger
      13 November 2015 at 7:46 pm

      Of course thank you! Link is via Axis http://www.axisweb.org/p/dorisrohr/ and the most relevant artwork on display is a large drawing on lining paper called Marine Scroll 1. Not very advert like I suppose, but hey – here to a dialogue between advertising and fine art! It’s all visual and motivations can be shared… promoting ethical thinking… think only Barbara Kruger or Jenny Holzer (not that my work has anything to do with their approaches really, me is more oldfashioned drawing with watercolour… ). Doris

  3. 13 November 2015 at 8:00 pm

    Dawn, you write “… that photographs of war, natural disaster and other humanitarian crises make the events seem familiar but remote. We are aware that they are happening but we also know they are happening somewhere else so they actually make us feel safe and secure rather than shocked and impelled to take action.”
    As I understand, Sontag has developed her argument in a later book, “Regarding the Pain of Others” to say that actually we already are in this atrophied state and that all photographs are doing is reminding us of the fact.

    • 14 November 2015 at 11:58 am

      As news of the attacks in Paris spreads across media, the interest aroused by this will vary from genuine concern to vicarious enjoyment of an “exciting” event that could be part of a movie? Is photography to blame for this response or is it just the human condition? Certainly, there is little most of us can do about the situation and I don’t think we are right to shoot the messenger; photography is reminding us of our helplessness not creating it.

      • dawn woolley
        25 November 2015 at 9:59 pm

        I think the way the media report and sensationalise these acts of violence is deeply problematic and pyschologists have long been saying the way to reduce copycat shootings etc. is to respond to them with a media black-out and not report it at all. I think the way it is reported only incites power / attention hungry people to perpetrate more violent acts.

    • dawn woolley
      25 November 2015 at 9:55 pm

      I think Sontag is being a bit fatalistic. She implies that we can no longer be moved or touched by images but in the article I am arguing that images can still shock us (in a productive way) to make us think. I think the images in the article do so by changing the context of the individuals in the photographs to make them ‘appear among us’ and therefore seem closer to home. Occasionally images stir our humanity rather than remind us that we are desensitised.

  4. 29 November 2015 at 8:33 am

    The argument of the need to remove the remote factor is validated by the image that captivated the attention of everyday people i.e., the photograph of the uniformed European soldier carrying a young boy who had drowned trying to flee the Syrian conflict. Why does it resonate? We are presented with a child who looks like our children and is wearing western clothes on a beach like one we may visit. Would the reaction have been the same if it was a child who does not look western? Would the media have reported it?
    I feel that paintings can often speak a greater truth than photographs because they deliberately challenge the viewer to reconsider what is presented to them. Pete Wheeler for example is an artist who looks specifically at media bias and propaganda.

    • dawn woolley
      4 December 2015 at 4:06 pm

      I think you are correct Rebecca – the familiarity of so many of the elements in the photograph of the drowned boy really increased the impact it had on people. Your comment on the truthfulness of painting is interesting; I think it can show emotional truth but so can photography – and photography has the advantage of what Barthes calls the ‘necessarily-real-thing’ as opposed to the ‘optionally-real-thing’ of painting and other forms of representation… Do you have a website link for Pete Wheeler’s work – I would be interested to know more?

  5. 11 March 2016 at 7:02 pm

    Dawn I was just rereading this article and wondering what you meant by saying that Sontag was drawing from Barthes when the quote you give predates the book you mention by Barthes. As I understand they knew each other and of course Barthes mentioned photography even though he only wrote one book devoted to it namely Camera Lucida, composed between the death of his mother and his own passing.

    • dawn woolley
      7 June 2016 at 6:24 pm

      Well spotted – I did indeed quote Camera Lucida, hence the date of that publication, but the ideas about photographic truth can be found in a much earlier essay – The Rhetoric of the Image from 1964. Although Barthes only wrote one book solely devoted to photography there are a number of essays that deal with the photographic image in one way or another – you can find them in Image, Music, Text and Mythologies.

      • 8 June 2016 at 10:00 am

        Thanks Dawn. To be honest, I find myself questioning quite a bit of what Sontag says while there is a certain authenticity to Barthes.

  6. 10 September 2017 at 12:22 pm

    I found your article very interesting. You asked which image we found most effective and why, I found the Prevention Beer Mug most effective. Reason being it’s something that could be happening in my own street.
    Advertising is usually targeted at specific demographics, unlike the images you have been shown here, they would connect to anyone with a heart or conscience. Sometimes adverts can go a step too far for the viewer. For example the WWF about the 2009 tsunami ad that ran in a small town newspaper and was picked up by a blogger who reproduced it on social media. Global outrage ensued, the image depicted numerous planes heading toward the twin towers of the World Trade Centre.
    I feel that in today’s society, we can easily become desensitised to advertising. Once over the initial shock of the image it disappears into the background. Speaking from experience, (as an ex-smoker), showing diseased lungs and printing ‘Smoking Kills’ became the norm on my cigarette packet. It’s not the reason I gave up.
    Today advertising has moved to the internet in a big way. Here our searches and social media use has become a need. So advertisers are utilising this media, bombarding the audience. We are surrounded by advertising, from bill boards, tv, radio, trains the list is endless.
    When adverts tug at the heartstring and conscience they become annoying with the thoughts of; ‘ok, but what can I do about it’ syndrome, or ‘I can’t afford to donate to EVERY charity or need’ This intrusion also becomes and invasion of the viewers personal space. Over saturation of adverts substantially minimises the effect of the advert on the viewer.
    Thanks for sharing

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