In tragedy and in advertising: creating tension through “unexpected juxtapositions.”

January 16, 2012

The Italian cruise ship disaster provided the world some unbelievable images. These pictures defied convention. And if I may put the human tragedy aside, they made me think of modern art more than current events. They were “unexpected juxtapositions,” to use a phrase from Wikipedia’s definition of Surrealism. A sideways cruise ship? A horizontal chimney? I couldn’t help but think of surrealist or pop art.

With countless cameras now recording images of everything under the sun, it has become increasingly difficult for a photograph to capture something that captures our attention. This goes for news stories, Facebook updates and, of course, advertisements.

For obvious reasons, tragic images stop us in our tracks. Against a bright blue sky, a jet heads straight for the World Trade Towers. For me, the unexpected juxtaposition of airplane and building is indelible, more so than any of the gruesome pictures that came after.

Again, without making light of tragedy, there is a strange beauty regarding unexpected juxtapositions. They create tension. Advertising creatives know the value of creative tension. Consider the unexpected juxtapositions in one of the most famous ads ever: The 1984 commercial for Apple computers. You have a colorful woman in a see of gray men. You have a hammer and a screen. The tension is palpable. The explosion cathartic.

Unexpected juxtapositions are like magnets, attracting or repelling us. In news it often is for the latter. Advertisers, obviously, strive for the former. Either way, disparate combinations of even the most ordinary objects give us pause, asking us to think differently.

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