Historically, advertising has never been too concerned with being offensive. When it comes to visual communication, the ultimate goal is to make sure that product makes it from it’s comfortable place on the store shelf to the habitat of your home.
Many ads achieve this on a daily basis. There have always been those that were blind to the subtle and sometimes blunt messages behind the images, and those that weren’t.
As you are driving home, this trail of money you leave behind buying other stuff goes into the pockets of brands that made the products appealing to you. It was achieved by the hundreds of ads that you see everyday. Some ads try to be inclusive, while others rely on stereotypes.
Why do these images sell? Partially because stereotypes are somewhat grounded in truth and therefore appeal to majority.
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This article is not just focused on the things we buy, it’s about the repercussions of the industry and the way we ultimately see the world around us. It’s a big leap but it is also a topic that doesn’t get enough attention.
For starters, take a step back and think about how advertising has persuaded you to buy all the things you surround yourself with.
We, as humans, are subject to biases but the images we see in ads also have the power to impact our careers, personal lives and sometimes even both. Sadly, the advertising industry never has and still doesn’t take this responsibility seriously.
Ads establish trends and current social norms
We’re bombarded with ads on a daily basis and they form associations and preconceptions of what is socially acceptable. The ads you see achieve their objective of making you want to buy something, and they do it through visual reinforcements. This happens on a subconscious level as well, which is what makes it so poisonous.
If we just look at the issue of offensive advertisements, the stereotypes are present because somewhere out there, someone was extremely lazy. I say lazy because it’s just too easy to portray a happy white family, a fit woman that’s ready for the beach, the dominating man and the domesticated woman.
Yet, these images exist, and someone’s ignorance is responsible for the establishment of some of the contemporary ‘social norms’.
A large portion of the magazines are devoted to ads (as much as 85% in some). The images in glamour magazines are indirectly telling us how we should look, what we should eat and what we should buy. There is always a loud and clear message, see for yourself:
There was also a study conducted where 69% of girls questioned said that magazine models influence their idea of the perfect body shape. This example of an ad by Protein World sparked controversy in the UK.
The body shaming ad was not re-captioned, well, for obvious reasons. This ad most certainly made young girls and women uncomfortable to the point of questioning themselves. Isn’t a swimsuit all we need to be beach ready? This ad begs to differ, as apparently you have to look like the model to be comfortable at the beach.
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You can deny it, but stereotypes still exist
Customers are individuals, the closer you edge to their interests and habits, the more loyal they will be to your business. This can be done by classifying customers into groups based on common characteristics and thus, stereotypes are born.
It isn’t right because not all women aspire to have the perfect body, not every man is sports crazed and not every elderly person gardens in their free time.
A few years ago, Glynn Devins conducted a study with senior citizens and found out that 60% of the 400 seniors surveyed, believed that they were depicted by ‘condescending stereotypes.’
These stereotypes and social norms have an impact on equality issues on a global scale. Some brands picked up on the dissatisfaction and tried to break out of these confines.
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We know these stereotypes are dated, yet they do exist. Many brands and companies still focus on them as a way to target specific groups of people. Does this mean there is a place for the outdated stereotypes? Some of them are just more evident than others such as the sexualized portrayal of women and the dominating, masculine man. These images are easy to produce, easy to buy and even easier to sell.
Advertising and visual communication in general, can’t survive by sticking to these misconceptions for too long. Big brands spend large sums of money on studying consumer habits, learning more about their clients to ultimately tap into their psyche.
The next step is finding the visuals to complement the idea and capture a message in a photograph.
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Images are powerful — where do they come from?
Major brands and other companies develop their concepts for ads and other print and digital publishing with their teams. With a bigger budget, photographers are hired to do the job together with a whole crew and a fancy studio.
Not every marketing team has this kind of budget which is why stock photography is such an obvious alternative.
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Stock photography is starting to dominate the market by providing cost effective solutions for the visual needs of creatives and marketers all over the world.
It is also worth noting that stock photography isn’t limited by DSLR produced images but includes mobile photography as well. What better medium to use to capture those fine details of everyday life in a more candid, authentic manner?
It is this powerful tool that can potentially change the way stock photography is perceived. No longer staged but rather ‘taken in the moment’, with a specific aesthetic and a new perspective. Mobile photography is quick, snappy and perhaps even more authentic than staged, studio-shot photographs.
Mobile photography is making small waves
We do it almost automatically and always on the go. These pictures receive their fame in news feeds, fueled and blown up by social media.
Some photographers have found their niche here. They are taking stock photography to a new level because there is still so much ground to be explored through mobile photography.
These candid images break out of the confined walls that are built by the demands of advertising and this way, photographers are offering something new to clients — sincerity, authenticity. The walls are starting to crumble, and social media has given us a big hand with it.
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A glimmer of hope and the big question
On a larger scope, this documentation represents the mosaic that is our global community. Anyone can be an artist, anyone can be a photographer and an art director.
Why is it then, given these opportunities, that we still lack diversity in visuals when we open up our laptops, step on the train or drive alongside the road?
Despite the efforts of these individual initiatives and some impressive brand campaigns, we still see a lack of diversity when it comes to the use of commercial photography and stock photography on websites and ads.
This never ending struggle with social stereotypes poses a fundamental question for the past, present and future of visual communication.
Stock photography is challenging stereotypes
Even with large stock photography databases, we stumble on images that don’t reflect the times we live in. These outdated stereotypes are presented as social norms. In reality, they are holding back change and slowing down the progress for the advertising industry.
Marketers have a choice though. They can choose to shift their attitude, boost their business with forward thinking visuals and do it all at at the same time. Change isn’t easy for anyone, it requires readjustment but it is all possible if you’re just willing to go an extra mile.
The stock photography market isn’t one without flaws. Although a popular solution for many marketers and advertisers, it is still in the transitional stage in regards to fighting stereotypes.
Depositphotos looked at gender stereotypes and what clients were looking for in search of professions based on genders. The findings were published in their blog:
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Judging by the Depositphotos research, it is evident that some obvious misconception exists about what is typically a ‘male job’ and a female one. Twice as many people are searching for ‘businessman’ than ‘businesswoman’. We can see women prevailing with professions such as teachers, doctors, secretaries and dietitians. Male dominated professions are software engineers, managers, drivers and businessmen.
The next big question is why do we think men are more fit for certain occupations than women?
Without a doubt, there is a clear divide between the two genders and as supply has to meet demand — marketers and advertisers make these conscious decisions and request imagery that suits their agenda.
Once we dig into the data, we can see that perhaps everyone would benefit from a change in attitude towards professions which would therefore erase some of these boundaries that clients have drawn themselves. Depositphotos compiled a collection of photographs that promotes equality, challenges stereotypes and eliminates the presumptions connected to females and professions.
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Get with the times, or get left behind
Visual communication is constantly evolving. Marketers and advertisers are always on the lookout for something different, new and exciting.
Battling stereotypes was never a single movement, relegated to a specific point in time, but rather an ongoing process. It’s starting to be taken more seriously, and in turn is creative positive waves and encouraging photographers to produce work that lives outside these narrow cultural margins.
The responsibility is also immense. As educated adults, we can look at an ad and draw conclusions about the biases. What is dangerous is that children can’t.
This consciousness is starting to take shape and those that ignore this movement are risking their professional reputation. You’ve either got to get with the times, or you risk being left behind. Visual communication don’t stay in place and this isn’t a subject you can dust under your doormat.
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Can brands remain impartial when creating ads?
The problem with this premise is that it defies the original objective to reach and appeal to a target audience.
Having a target audience implies that there is a specific group of people for whom the product is made, companies are not creating products to be appealing to every single person. So we know that some ads are intentionally bias to fit a purpose.
You’ve probably guessed the issue with this one. Making this commitment would actually require creativity and innovation. Is it safe to say then that this is what prevents some marketers; extending themselves for the greater good and being creative instead of exclusive and offensive.
We’re back to square one. It is so easy to use a picture of the woman with the perfect body, the man being a leader and the perfect family enjoying a meal. These pictures aren’t perfect at all — they are staged and they are fake to resonate in the eyes of the perfect client. Take a step back. Look with perspective and the bigger picture in mind. There is a subtle message behind these perfect shots.
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If you put yourself in the shoes of a marketer, would you rather chose a bold, daring image that breaks the rules and puts forward a new idea, or would you rather opt for the image that sells? Unfortunately, the obvious choice for professionals would be to opt for the image that sells.
Is the fundamental issue the demand for these images or the supply of them?
Is it the clients or the photographers that get to decide?
The issue is a collective one and can’t be assigned to either force; there are two sides to this coin. The argument can be a never ending one but it is also true that marketers have the bigger responsibility here to influence consumers.
The people responsible for selecting the images will ultimately determine part of the course of visual communication. If I’m lucky enough to reach just one executive — the change starts with you.
Don’t settle for the image that sells, settle for the one that has the most potential to spark positive changes, influence young minds and become exemplary in every aspect.
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Change is slow, but it is on its way
What can we do as individuals to help with this change? You can try to avoid advertising at all costs, shut off your computer, turn off the TV and restrain from buying products when you don’t support the causes as represented in ads. As hard as you try to avoid advertising though, you can’t escape the influence.
The issue isn’t even with what we buy, it’s our perception of the world around us. Some drastic change must unravel in order for marketers around the world to embrace this trend and for consumers to collectively agree that some things are just not ‘okay’ to portray to the public.
The future in the eyes of these creatives is bright, but it will take time to make any significant alterations.
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This change is going to be a long road, hopefully paved in the right direction word by word. The path is also an international one; it’s universal and inclusive of people regardless of their age, gender and race. It will take the collective effort of talented photographers, artists and forward thinking individuals to show us what could be, what ought to be and what must be the new face of visual communication.