December 6, 2009

Images will not eclipse words

It's common to hear that in this digital age pictures and visual design are replacing text and verbal meaning. (Here's something I found on the first page of a google search.) To anyone who's been paying attention in the past 10 to 20 years, this rings true. The question is whether this will continue indefinitely, perhaps as a form of creative destruction in how sellers communicate to consumers.

On theoretical grounds, I don't think so. The more and more that sellers compete for consumers based on the pictures and visual design of their products, the easier it will be for a rogue seller to only spend a bit on visuals and throw together some mildly interesting text, a narrative or story about the product. We like stories just as much as we do pictures, so that seller will get our attention -- even more easily given how fatigued we will eventually get with dazzling images.

By spending a lot less on marketing (a bit for visuals and a small amount for the so-so story) compared to their competitors (who must spend tons to get a tiny edge in an advanced visual arms race), they'll make an easy profit. That will draw others into that same strategy and ultimately make it harder for narratives to win people over, shrinking the easy profits to be had that way. Of course, that puts us back to where we were before, and some rogue seller will leave the storytelling arena and be the sole competitor in the visual design arena. It's the business analogue of frequency dependent selection in evolutionary biology -- how profitable one of these two strategies is depends on how frequent it is. The more common the visual strategy is, the harder it is to gain an edge there, and the easier it is to gain an edge through the narrative strategy.

The two strategies will oscillate over time but not because of fashion -- that is, changing just to change. They're changing from hard-profit strategies to easy-profit strategies, so it's not fickleness or a desire to keep consumers on a fashion treadmill. Quite the opposite: it's the consumers who can only become so hypnotized by pictures, at which point they will respond much more positively to an interesting story.

To provide some concrete examples which show that this shift back towards stories is already afoot, go to your local Whole Foods and pick up anything at random. Look at its packaging, and I'll bet that there's at least one paragraph of prose, and perhaps even two or three if space permits. Typical paragraphs focus on the company's mission statement, as though you were a prospective owner; an exposition of how each of the ingredients contributes to the product's quality; and the story behind their production process --

Although tea (camellia sinensis) is grown around the world, only by using these special Java tea leaves and our unique microbrewing methods can we create the peerless full-bodied character of Tejava.

That iced tea's website goes into even greater narrative detail, rather than only show a series of images that convey the company's values. They even have a tab labeled "Tejava Story" to pique your verbal interest. Like I said, you can inspect items in Whole Foods at random and read these kinds of things. *

Up through the 1950s, advertisements were dense with text on just these focuses, so after a textually minimalist hiatus, we're back to the good old pre-'60s marketing approach. Clearly some products are better suited for telling stories, such as how food gets made -- something that modern people have no idea about anymore, but which our hunter and farmer brains are naturally curious about. But anything that has a complicated but mildly interesting production process can use this approach. It puts more of a human face on how this thing got made, and it explains why it's as good as they say. And certainly products whose sellers compete mostly on price -- say, gasoline -- won't bother spending on any form of design to draw you in, whether flashy visuals or engrossing narratives.

The other reason that words will never be eclipsed by pictures is that we are primarily a verbal, not a visual, species. As a result, it's a lot easier to pass along a recommendation for some product by word-of-mouth than picture-of-hand. Give consumers an easy-to-remember story about how their Rwandan coffee or Belgian chocolate was made, and they'll have something exciting to tell their social circle. It's easier to show off that way, too, whereas you'd have to be great at drawing or photography in order to relay how visually arresting your new gizmo is if you didn't bring it with you.

So don't worry word-lovers. The theory and evidence shows that pictures will never come close to replacing words. Hopefully the focus on visual effects in movies will give way to a focus on dialog once again, but it may take awhile.

* Another example from a different section of the supermarket:

Get Ready! Our one-of-a-kind Pasture Butter redefines quality. Exclusively from pampered cows on summer pastures, when Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLAs) and Omega 3s are naturally highest in our butter. The velvety texture is sublime and the flavor is the best we have ever tasted. [They're not lying.] Learn about CLA and Omega 3 research at


And that's all on the side of an 8 oz stick of butter! Space may be limited, but they use it all up to tell their story.


  1. That's different. Marginal ideas can be used even when there's only one product, strategy, etc. The standard example is diminishing marginal utility -- that applies even if there are no alternatives to the product. You get less satisfaction from each further mouthful of ice cream even if that's all there is to eat.

    In frequency dependent selection, there are at least two ways to go, but the genetic success of either depends on how frequent it is. Standard example is playing the defecting strategy in prisoner's dilemma games.

    When cooperators are very common, a rare defector gets paid handsomely and the frequency of the relevant genes start spreading. However, if defectors are very common, the next defector will get hurt, pushing down the frequency of defecting genes.

    So going with a mostly-image strategy vs. a mostly-narrative strategy is a form of frequency dependent selection. When one of those strategies is rare, it's easy to profit from it; when it's very common, it's tough to profit from it.

  2. Menu descriptions have gotten much more verbally complex over my lifetime. As Dave Barry pointed out, when he was a kid, menus looked like this:

    Beef $3.95
    Fish $2.95
    Spaghetti $1.95


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