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Ways of seeing

17 Apr 2018  |  James Whitmore 
Ways of seeing

As out-of-home embraces more video, Route's James Whitmore examines the impact for both consumers and the ad industry. But first, a history lesson...

Let’s think about seeing. We are rightly excited about the growth of digital media but we don’t seem to devote time to understand how it functions as a means of communication. For example, most people would accept that only part of an online video ad or a digital out-of-home spot will be seen. The conversation does not extend to consider which part is viewed and how this will differ depending on both the form of delivery and the mode of the viewer. It should.

An interesting thing about the BBC’s Civilisations – the long awaited follow-up to the original 1969 landmark series Civilisation by Kenneth Clark, is that it brings to mind John Berger’s response to the original series. He questioned how different people can interpret the same thing in diverse ways.

Pictures are probably the purest form of communication. For words to have meaning, they must be strung into sentences. It takes about five seconds to read the first twenty words of this paragraph. It takes the brain less than one tenth of a second to recognise an image. (On this basis, if you were to do the maths, a single picture is worth more than fifty units of language.)

People rapidly take meaning from pictures as they are able to layer the elements of what is shown in an order that best suits them. They do not have to wait to read or hear the last word. The sense of an image is pieced together by a swift, subconscious movement of the eye.

It leads me to ponder how best to communicate in the digital world.

But first, let’s get some context and go back to a true disruption; the invention of the printing press.

At the time, communication was oral, handwritten and visual. People were adept at discussing stuff and they were particularly astute at deciphering the meaning inherent in images. I may look at a mediaeval painting and see a Madonna and child. Contemporaries would see a far richer message, often an entire narrative. Here’s one painted at the time. What are the flowers saying? The tree? The bush? The pots? They have an allegorical meaning that is lost to our modern eyes.

Matthias Grunewald - The Stuppach Madonna

To quote Martin Luther “simple folk …are more easily moved by pictures and images to recall divine history than through mere words or doctrines”.

Which was just as well, as the invention of printing did not lead to an immediate outbreak of literacy. Early print was more about the standardisation and spread of knowledge than the launch of a mass market medium. Most people would experience printed texts by hearing them read out loud. In practice, the new medium, its content and its dissemination were controlled by a small circle of the elite.

For many years, the commoners’ personal encounters with printed matter were restricted to the types of image with which they were familiar; woodcuts in the main.

If you zoom forward 100 years to the Wars of Religion in France between 1562-1598, “coal and feather” graffiti – posters in effect – were copied from walls and printed on paper. They were then distributed to the populace, further fomenting unrest. Powerful images, not words, were used to move the public. (As an aside, this is the earliest example of the effectiveness of a dual media strategy that I know. Posters and print lead to a catastrophic change in behaviour. Watch “La Reine Margot” for an entertaining and bloody fiction of events.)

Political pamphlets began to create waves in the early seventeenth century but even by the mid 1700s, still only 60% of men and 40% of women in the London population could read.

Left to their own devices, people grasp images before resorting to words. Today we can see an example in the spread of emoticons as contractions that replace written expression. Equally, look at Instagram. Pictures. Pictures that offer a window to the poster’s soul. The image not just making a point but telling of the life and psychology of the person that put it there. This takes us back to John Berger and Ways of Seeing – “Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.”

The point being that as far back as you look, pictures have not only been an effective means of communication but the one that is most in tune with the working of our brains too.

So far, all the images mentioned are static.

What happens when you graduate to moving images? And what happens when you display moving images in a transitory setting such as OOH?

It is an interesting question as it is surely different to watching a commercial on the TV or tablet, when you are seated and expecting to be entertained. At home, there may be a number of screens competing for attention but it remains a different type of encounter to that experienced in a public space, let’s say in a tube station or at a shopping centre. What goes on there?

What we do know is the length of time that people are exposed to each poster screen and the probability that the eye will fixate on it at least once. We use this knowledge to estimate the audiences for digital out of home. It’s a big hop but there are still a skip and a jump to complete.

Earlier I mentioned that we can cognitively assimilate an image in less than one tenth of a second. What happens with a five second ad on a poster screen? Do people disregard the other 4.9 seconds’ communication? Do they, having spotted the ad, stay with it to the end? Or periodically re-glance, just to be sure they know what they’ve seen? In addition, how common are the “rules” – for example, do drivers and pedestrians encounter a digital bus shelter in the same way? So many questions. The brutal truth is that we don’t really know.

And how should you create copy? Do you assume that you have an uninterrupted five second narrative arc? Or must you accept that the viewer may join the spot at any point in its transmission? How do you guarantee that, whatever the entry and exit point of the observer’s gaze, the branding and message retain equal power throughout? Do you assume that shown with sufficient frequency, the communication will sink in whatever happens? I don’t think we know the answer to that one either.

The good news is that the skip and the jump are within reach.

We would hope that, in time, Route will be able to progress its visibility research to independently produce more detailed measures of digital displays; the fixations, durations, comparisons, and so on.

We should also anticipate that clients and agencies will cast an eye on the nature of out of home video spots; how best to communicate message and brand in a manner that is appropriate to the context in which the ad is seen.

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08 Jul 2020 

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