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  • Chris Gib

Stock-holm syndrome Part 1: Digital Marketing’s comfort blanket needs a good wash

The concept of stock photography has been around for just over a century, but it wasn’t until the 1990’s tech revolution - when technology reached a point where huge amounts of data could be stored and transferred with ease – that it really took off. The dot-com boom, developments in print media and the birth of mainstream websites sky-rocketed demand for stock imagery & video, creating an industry that is now worth around $5 billion.

During its 70-year gestation period, ‘stock’ was a quick, cheap and convenient solution for filling visual gaps, enhancing print articles and augmenting early digital resources. 30ish years later we are now reaching a saturation point where the domination of stock should force marketers and businesses to seriously consider their reliance on what is fast becoming as much of a problem as it is a solution.

The meme minefield

Around the same time that the stock photography industry started booming, humans were witnessing the quiet birth of another global phenomenon known as internet memes.

Originally sourced from stock libraries and legitimately featured on many corporate websites, the photos now widely referred to as “Hide the pain Harold” and “The distracted boyfriend” provide visual foundations for countless memes. As a result of meme-makers turning to easily accessible stock photos for their new ideas, many businesses found that they had to move quickly to remove ‘memed’ images (and others featuring similar faces, themes or styles) from their websites and collateral – sometimes at great cost. With new memes going viral daily powered by stock library images, it’s never been easier for businesses to fall victim to meme culture.

The sea of stock sameness

Most websites use stock. Most collateral features stock. Most promo videos utilise stock. Most exhibition stands have stock. You already know that if you go on to the website for a spa, you’ll immediately encounter the image of a serene lady laying on her front receiving a candle-lit massage and/or the clichéd image of hot-stones stacked like a cairn next to some pretty flowers. Visit many a corporate website and there’s no way you’ll avoid a gaggle of smiling suited office workers thoughtfully discussing what’s on a computer screen, shaking hands on that important deal, or enjoying a casual (but politically correct) joke during a meeting. How about the one of a smiley call centre worker chatting away wearing their headset. Or the stressed employee pulling their hair out while they stare into the camera lens with wide eyes. Then there’s the guy drawing symbols, writing words or applying sticky notes on a piece of transparent Perspex. You get the picture (pun intended).

Is that really you?

How much can stock visuals really represent a business or brand? Those happy people in the pictures or videos on your website aren’t really your employees, and your open plan call-centre certainly doesn’t look much like that fancy collaboration area they are occupying. The picture of a clinical corporate foyer isn’t actually part of your office building. Those happy children playing in those fields wearing those fancy-dress outfits are neither your kids, your land or your clothes. If your aging prefab factory is located on a concrete industrial estate in Basingstoke, it might not be wise for the pictures on your brochure to make people think it’s a state-of-the-art facility in silicone valley.

When a business uses stock to radiate a certain impression, but the reality is actually very different, it can create a sour taste of inauthenticity and disingenuousness. Of course, stock allows businesses to represent values, ideas, locations and concepts but it can also help to embellish or misrepresent the truth. Customers prefer honesty and integrity.

Too much of something is the beginning of a mess

At the beginning of this article, it was mentioned that stock libraries were created to help organisations enhance their printed collateral, create a break in long pieces of text or act as a symbolic image to accompany a newspaper article. But as the industry boomed and huge libraries popped up containing millions of easily accessible photos and videos, things went the other way and stock became more dominant than content. It’s not hard to find examples of stock-overuse, and continuing the practice has real world implications for a business; Images and videos take more time to load on web pages which can affect SEO, ranking and conversion rates. Lots of pictures also increases website scroll – especially on mobile devices – and can detract from the crucial messaging contained in well-written copy. Where stock is concerned, less is more.

Fear of failure isn't the only enemy of design and creativity

Thanks to the meteoric rise of drag’n’drop website builders like Wix and low cost easy-to-use design platforms such as Canva, anyone can have a pop at creating digital and print assets for their organisation. Yet this new freedom and capability comes with some very loud alarm bells. Non-designers may lack the knowledge of fundamental design principles, leading to creations that are visually unappealing or fail to effectively communicate the intended message. Effective design involves thoughtful organisation and hierarchy, and inexperienced designers may overcrowd their creations with too many uninspired stock images or videos resulting in a cluttered, ugly and confusing experience.

D&I danger

Rightly, Diversity and Inclusion has taken centre stage and most organisations are working hard to correct any real life imbalances they might be experiencing internally. As a result of this push, the stock landscape is now flooded with images and videos containing characters and situations that feed into the narrative of D&I, and you’d struggle to find a digital marketer in the UK who doesn’t have D&I as their primary criteria when they spend hours wading through stock libraries to find that perfect photo. But as previously alluded to, if an organisation’s ambitions and actions regarding D&I don’t match the wonderfully multi-cultural and multi-racial nature of their visuals, it’s not only meaningless but also dishonest.

If the above has motivated you to investigate further, a Google search will likely deliver a plethora of articles devoted to delving deeper into the dangers of using (and overusing) stock photos and videos.

DarkScorpio Media and Marketing exists to find creative and effective ways to solve these kinds of challenges so in part 2 of this article, we’ll consider some solutions that can help your businesses visually stand out from the crowd.

In the meantime, we’d love to learn from other valid thoughts, opinions and funny/awkward stories with regard to the use of stock photos and videos. Please, impart your wisdom!

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