Emily Tan
Apr 15, 2015

Stock images: Do you know where your pics are right now?

As demand for branded visuals goes through the roof, agencies and brands have to keep closer track or risk playing with fire.

Familiar face: The enigmatic stock-photo model known only as Ariane is so ubiquitous she has her own online fan base.
Familiar face: The enigmatic stock-photo model known only as Ariane is so ubiquitous she has her own online fan base.

You’ve seen her a hundred times before reading this article. She’s smiled her wide grin at you from billboards, brochures, websites and even the occasional tote bag. She’s endorsed brands all over the world, including Google Adwords, Weight Watchers, Accenture, and fronts Teamviewer’s landing page. Her name is Ariane, and she’s probably the world’s most overexposed stock-photo model.

Ariane is not alone. She’s joined by Jennifer Anderson, known as the “Everywhere Girl”, the mature “Friendly Senior Business Guy”, and Jesper Bruun, the world’s most used male stock model. 

Historically, the ubiquity of a handful of models used in stock photos never presented much of a problem for brands. Their appearances were relatively scarce, and often separated by oceans and borders.

But as brands took to social media and online advertising, the demand for images has stepped up so much that online audiences have started taking notice. Ariane — a French-Canadian who has so far kept her full name secret — has an unofficial Facebook fanpage dedicated to her overexposure, a Tumblr account that tracks her appearances and she too has caved in and set up an official website asking fans to submit sightings.

This becomes an issue when the same face is endorsing rival brands. Or is also used for a potentially sensitive campaign, such as Aids Awareness or crime prevention. In the US, the Republican Party was lampooned last September when viewers noticed all the faces featured in its ‘Republicans are people, too’ campaign, were stock models who could also be seen helping to hawk glasses or virtual office helpers — and by implication not, in fact, ordinary party members.

These discoveries then go viral across social media and international news sites. 

“The importance of tracking visual assets has always been there, but certainly it has increased due to social and digital media,” says Todd Handcock CEO Asia-Pacific at Tag Worldwide and Williams Lea. Consumers are becoming shrewd, and not only examine a brand from commercial and quality parameters but also its social and environmental impact. “Gone are the days when marketers had some opportunity to take corrective actions and could somewhat contain the noise around incorrect brand messages by working with their local agencies.”

Some of the problems resulting from poor visual asset management, he adds, include dilution of the brand’s identity, confusing consumers, IP violations, regulatory issues and negative social impact. 

Getty Images has certainly noticed an uptick in the number of images bought on its stock-image platform in recent years, followed by increased interest in rights management. “In the past, we’d license four images a year for the front cover of a brochure,” says Rebecca Swift, director of creative planning, creative content for iStock by Getty Images. “But now it’s hundreds of images sometimes thousands for all sorts of different purposes, both online and traditional.” 

Handcock estimates that a major FMCG could go through 100 images or more a month, making it impossible, or at least highly impractical, for the company to produce them all in house. As a result, Swift says, stock images have gone from being the industry’s “dirty little secret” to being “one of the gang”. 

Another signal of image management is the rising demand for some services Getty provides. One of these is its rights-managed collection, which allows brands to control how an image will be used in future. “The royalties for the collection have grown for the first time in six to seven years. There’s definitely been much more interest,” she says. 

Likewise, Getty’s online image tracker, PicScout, which searches the net for the images sourced from its archives, was recently used by Shell Oil to track branded images from motorsport events that the company supported. This was partly to track reach, but also to check the images were being used properly.

Creative agencies in Asia, however, say they haven’t encountered this type of pressure from brands. Kevin Lynch, ECD for BBDO South China, says that the agency hasn’t seen a rise in client requests to track digital assets. “While copyright protection is always on a brand’s agenda, the fact is brands are often intentionally creating assets for people to repurpose, in the hope they’ll be posted and discussed,” he says. “So, it’s a balance. You want to be protective, sure, but you also want people to engage.”

So far, discussions on websites like Mashable and Buzzfeed around Ariane and subjects such as “women laughing with salad” hasn’t fazed local clients, says Leo Burnett Greater China’s regional creative director, Julian Hernandez. “It’s trivia: 99 per cent of people who will be exposed to advertising material portraying these models will never notice who the talent is.”

But Handcock disagrees with this stance. Overuse of a stock image model could create confusion or even negative connotations in the consumer’s mind. “Therefore, we do not recommend use of stock pictures, at least for brand images,” he says. 

Although Asian brands aren’t overly concerned at this point, research suggests perhaps they should start to be. In a recent study, MDG Advertising found that visuals increase audience engagement with content by an impressive 98 per cent. 

“While the rise of low-priced stock-imagery has democratised and has enabled businesses to extend their brands across multiple channels, this is increasingly at the cost of developing differentiated and meaningful visual assets,” says Graham Hitchmough, CEO of Southeast Asia and South Asia for Brand Union. “For all brands, the integrity and ownability of visual assets is of growing importance and this must not be forgotten in the rush to expand across an ever-developing array of channels.”

Our View: Although nascent, managing and owning the visuals it uses will be a crucial part of brand communications.

Got something to add? Please write to [email protected]


BIG IDEAS Your cheapest assets may be your costliest

Greg Armshaw, head of application strategy, Graymatics

The complexity of marketing choices leaves a CMO with the major headache of where to spend their time to get the best ROI. The sheer volume of marketing materials now means the CMO cannot vet every piece of creative. But with even tiny ads a ‘snap and share’ away from going viral, is it possible to control how the brand is represented? Some feel they have already lost it.

With a fully integrated marketing programme, from tweets to TV, a marketing department can be responsible for tens of thousands of marketing assets in a year. All have the potential to inspire customers — or cause a social media headache.

Ironically, it may be the least expensive assets that are creating the greatest risk. Was a stock model used by a competitor last week? Are programmatic ads appearing in unsafe environments? This is the brand-safety balancing act that marketers tread.

With no simplification of the task likely, we will look to technology for answers. The ecommerce era will bring its own expansion to the already immense ad-tech ecosystem. The right images and video on ecommerce increase sales conversions (5-times) and basket size (4.9-times). With increased sales metrics, marketers need to pay even closer attention to the creative assets they use and require performance metrics on creative executions from partners.

As programmatic buying methods move into TV and outdoor, marketing assets need to be permanently available. With so many being created, asset management and CMS systems will be used for all assets, from web content to packaging. ROI will not just come from identifying the most effective assets, but also re-use.

Computer vision technology delivers a semantic understanding of the environment and the creative assets. And with evidence that contextually relevant ads perform better, you can imagine ads being assembled programmatically according to the context: copy being placed onto an appropriate image based on the article, video or image gallery it is being placed in.

 

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