A Visual Overdose? Visual Communications in Public Relations

A Visual Overdose? Visual Communications in Public Relations

Sadler-Trainor, Genevieve

We are getting fatter, more depressed, and more in debt as every second races us to the finish line. Sixty percent of American adults are now overweight, with the number of fat children catching up. Pharmaceutical companies compete to market the next great antidepressants: will it beat Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft? Perhaps to soothe our worries about not winning the thin game or the happy game, we win the spending game. We are bombarded with visual communications that comfort us, telling us that everything will be okay if we just buy their product. Further, television and movies work to entertain us so we will have the time to sit and gain weight. And then there is the news-real people, real problems, real death-but do we really care, or are we just simply satisfying the need to be constantly visually entertained? As Dennis L. Wilcox et al. (2003) explain in Public Relations: Strategies and Tactics: “The enormous impact of television on daily life was largely responsible for an increased visual orientation” (p.240). Indeed, television and other visual communications pound images into our heads day after day, determining how we learn and what we value.

In fact, this emphasis on visual communications means that public relations professionals must learn as much about the paint brush as the pen. Video news releases and eye-catching images may be surpassing quality writing in deciding what makes it past the cutting room floor: News editors have suggested that “weaker stories with strong visuals outperform strong stories with weak art” (Amberg, January 1995, p.14). Producing the desired outcome from a campaign may be depended on “more visuals, more graphics and less writing” (Amberg, January 1995, p. 14). Yet how do photographs and strong images aid in creating positive relationships between a company and its publics? And aside from a few extra pounds, do publics gain company knowledge or learn an organization’s value?

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman discusses how the print-to-television shift changed what we value: “Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education, and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business” (1985, p.2). Show business tells us that we do not have to listen to candidates, just look at them. Are they fat and bald? Well they must have discipline issues and bad genetics. Vote for the trim guy with a full head of hair: the Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Ronald Reagan. As Postman said, “We may have reached the point where cosmetics has replaced ideology as the field of expertise over which a politician must have competent control” (1985, p. 4).

This emphasis on visual appeal influences what we perceive as the “truth; it must appear in its proper clothing or it is not acknowledged, which is a way of saying that the ‘truth’ is a kind of cultural prejudice” (Postman, 1985, p.22). In effect, our culture puts “seeing as believing” in a higher regard than reading and believing (Postman, 1985, p.22). But this allows the media an almost god-like power to proclaim the truth with images that are possibly wrenched out of context. And while people may distrust the media, it is difficult to discern what is “true” on a story-by-story basis. Making the discerning process ever more difficult is that people view truth and fact as interchangeable. “Truth, however, like time itself, is a product of a conversation that man has with himself about and through the techniques of communication he has invented” (Postman, 1985, p.24).

So how do public relations practitioners convey truth and credibility, as part of a company’s ethical appeal, in visual communications? In Communication and Persuasion, Hovland, Janis, and Kelley (1965) pointed out: “An individual’s tendency to accept a conclusion advocated by a given communicator will depend in part upon how well informed and intelligent he believes the communicator to be” (p.21). How much can a picture demonstrate degrees of intelligence and levels of information? Since creating credibility with publics is a major consideration for public relations professionals, how well is “expertness,” which is what Hovland, Janis, and Kelly (1965, p.22) consider crucial in establishing credibility, conveyed through a visual? “Persons in some occupations and offices (e.g., radio announcers, publicity agents, salesmen) are known to be under special pressures to communicate certain things and not others (Hovland, Janis, and Kelly, 1965, p.23). Other visual media professionals face a different or lesser degree of pressure to communicate certain things: “For other roles, for example, that of the newspaper reporter, the pressures may be perceived to operate in the direction of giving all the facts as accurately as he can ascertain them” (Hovland, Janis, and Kelley, 1965, p.23).

Although Hovland, Janis and Kelley wrote Communication and Persuasion in the 1960s-before the age of digital manipulation and image enhancement-evidence lead them to state: “That publicity men assume greater credibility will be accorded news stories as compared with advertisements is manifested by their repeated attempts to obtain publicity for their clients in the news columns” (1965, p.23). So while “common sense tells us that the media placement with the highest impact for your client is one with an eye-catching photo or graphic” (Amberg, January 1995, p. 14), common sense may also tell us that we are seeing too many eye-catchers to process.

To explain, distributing “truths” through visual communication may be creating an American visual overdose in which our minds refuse to absorb any more images. Kalle Lasn wrote, in the January/February 2003 Adbusters article “Ad Spending Predicted for Steady Decline” that: “The ad industry is in its biggest tailspin since the Depression” (p.10). Further, Lasn (January/February 2003, p. 10) said “Industry journals like Ad Age and Adweek keep talking about recovery, but in fact they’re looking out at an empty horizon. It’s wishful thinking-its spin. Are we fighting for privacy? Advertisers are being forced to find more creative and personal ways to advertise via the Internet and cellular phones. And although the national “Do Not Call” list does not outlaw visual; intrusions, its legislation in October 2003 sends a message to advertisers: Leave Us Alone. “The people do not want the ads. They are stressed out by the myriad of messages their brains are forced to absorb each day. They are worried about their children, who now take in more than 20,000 commercials every year” (Lasn, January, February 2003, p.10).

Public relations practitioners, albeit they are not advertisers, must take into consideration that their publics are worried about too many commercials, too much television. They ask the question: Has image pollution left us brain damaged? According to Postman (1985, p.24) it has at least left us with “a certain measure of arbitrariness” in our forms of truth telling,” and “the rise of a television-based epistemology has had grave consequences for public life. We are getting sillier by the minute.” In fear of getting any sillier, audiences are now perhaps wishing for 15 seconds of privacy instead of 15 seconds of fame.

However, it is not that visual images are evil. Rather, they are very powerful in their occupation of the publics’ time and the shaping of how we all process our surrounding environments. And unlike books or newspapers, visual images do not provide our minds with much imaginative exercise, creating a visually obese culture. When we read, we are aware that other forms of “truth” exist through a word: We must work at forming words from letters and stories from words. Visual communications take away this level of mental processing. Therefore, Public relations practitioners and other media alike must use caution not to rip images from context and not to center campaigns around too much eye candy. For if public relations falls into the entertainment category, as it has sometimes been misunderstood to be part of (terms like publicist and spin doctor come to mind), then credibility will dissolve faster than a pen’s disappearing ink.

To sum it up, Postman compares our national character to the city of Las Vegas, for Las Vegas is a city entirely devoted to entertainment, and as such proclaims the spirit of a culture in which all public discourse (and relations with publics) take the form of entertainment” (1985, p1.). Amberg (January 1995) highlighted this notion by stating: “Great art can make even mediocre stories a sure thing with editors” (p.15). But will art and entertainment help build relationships with publics? Will it even catch their attention?


Amberg, Alan. (1995, January). Creating A Visual That’s worth 1,000 words. PR Tactics. P.14-15.

Hovland, Carl I., Irving L. Janis, and Harold H. Kelley. (1965). Communication and Persuasion (9th Ed.). New Haven and London: Yale University Press. P. 21-23.

Lasn, Kalle. (2003, January/February). Ad Spending Predicted for Steady decline. Adbusters, p.10.

Postman, Neil. (1985). Amusing Ourselves to Death. New York: Penguin Books. P. 2, 4, 22-24.

Wilcox, Dennis L., et al. (2003). Public Relations: Strategies and Tacitics (7th Ed.). Boston: Pearson Education. P. 240.

Genevieve Sadler-Trainor graduated summa cum laude in May 2005 from the University of New Mexico’s Department of Communications and Journalism. As a Public Relations Major, she has worked on New Mexico film festival campaigns and has served as vice-president for the University of New Mexico’s PR campaigns firm. She is now in Government Relations at the American Cancer Society, where public relations skills are a part of every aspect of her job-whether she is writing newsletters and press releases or training cancer survivors to speak with lawmakers. Helping to eliminate cancer as a major threat, she is one of few people who holds hopes to put herself out of a job. In her spare time she enjoys writing and acting and has had several small roles in movies made in New Mexico.

Copyright Public Relations Quarterly Winter 2005

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