Stock characters: Will advertising ever be rid of these shiny, happy shills?

September 4, 2012

Shiny happy people waiting to inhabit your ad…

One of my favorite (read least favorite) clichés in all of advertising is the usage of random portraits in lieu of images possessing actual conceptual value. You know what I’m talking about: a person, usually the alleged service provider or user, almost always standing and looking at you. For “variety” the subject sometimes has his or her arms folded. Other times he or she is holding a clipboard or a tablet suggesting business is taking place. If a uniform is appropriate (nurse, doctor, foreman, technician, etc.) then we typically see that as well. Of course, these folks are smiling. Smiling people are good for business.

Often these portraits have been pulled from a huge database of shiny, happy people. From numerous stock emporiums one need only search sex, age, race and occupation and up they pop: hundreds if not thousands of generic humans ready for your crappy ad.

And make no mistake the ad will be crappy or, at best, passably acceptable. For how could it be otherwise? In the same way a processed pastry is passably acceptable to one made from scratch so are factory made ads.

He has a stethoscope! She has a clipboard!

Like rack bought pastry the reason for them is almost always budget, or lack thereof. In comparison, producing ads from raw material is costly. Many clients don’t wish to spend money on custom made advertisements. Times are tough, right? Yet, even during a flush economy these same advertisers balk at spending real money on making ads. Marketing is typically viewed as a necessary evil and one of the first areas in a business plan to be compromised. Sadly and ironically, these same advertisers spend unimpeded monies for researching their ads, shelling out oodles of money on focus groups and the like. For some reason, this costly component of marketing is never compromised. Clients and research vendors righteously claim that understanding the consumer is critical to any marketing plan.

What they fail to grasp is that the consumer, as David Ogilvy famously pointed out, “is your wife.” And if one doesn’t think his wife hasn’t grown weary of generic images smiling at her from a bazillion ads then one is either an idiot or slightly misogynistic.

Should anyone think digital platforms have diminished this cliche’ think again. if anything, the habit is growing. Given tablets and mobile devices, what else are we going to put into such tiny squares but head shots and more head shots? It’s one key reason why monetizing Facebook via advertising is so difficult: the ads invariably blow. And they blow because millions of pocket-sized smiling faces make for a sad, sad world.


9 Responses to “Stock characters: Will advertising ever be rid of these shiny, happy shills?”

  1. Jim said

    And don’t forget to make sure those smiling faces reflect a good mix of gender and ethnicity. One of each should suffice.

  2. Steffan1, a poignant observation… you must have experienced it a zillion times. I’m not hooked up to cable TV for numerous years, for precisely these reasons. Irked by phony, plastic, stock smiles, I’ve refrained from TV (perhaps the loss is mine, perhaps not) for almost a decade… who cares, anyway. Also, I concur with your views on more money spent on market research, than on meaningful, effective advertising. I recall my stint in the Mumbai office of Chicago-based agency… AEs & junior creative teams; ADs & Group Creative Chiefs… all going crazy over packaging focused surveys, focus groups, concept tests for soaps, detergents, coke, tea… even for packaged salt!

  3. iam said

    hilarious, sad but true, I don’t know if it’s just me, but I tend to find pictures of humans unrelated to the product or article to be a distraction… The worst offenders are shiny happy advertising people, and also if it’s something shocking (like violence, sex, gore, medical conditions, etc). Sometimes I am reading an article or forum or product webpage for something I want to learn or reference for productive use, and I get bombarded with distracting images!

    • iam said

      On the other hand I wonder if they work, at least on a subconscious level, at least for some people? Both the shiny happy shill people marketing, and the shocking click-me click-me ad, I suspect have some measure of “success”. I find them both very annoying, but maybe they work on at least some level, which encourages there use, and is of course very unfortunate. I’m tempted to use a picture & video blocker that I can toggle with my web browser, or like press a hotkey then click on a picture or video or flash etc to block it out as a solid color. Ad blockers alone are not enough to counter the distracting spam of images.

      • Steffan1 said

        iam- Thank you for the comments. Stock images “work” in the sense that they are so commonplace. But they deaden the experience for all involved, bringing marketing forever down…

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