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Importance of Images

Research indicates that humans begin to recognise themselves at around 18 months of age and maybe this is an indication of consciousness: an awareness of the self, of one’s individuality

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Half sleepy, I walked into the bathroom this morning to brush my teeth and saw a face that was definitely familiar, but I could not immediately place it. Though bearded, it was not the ubiquitous visage of Prime Minister Modi, so visible on billboards, bus stops, television, newspapers and magazines – either in the context of the G20 or announcing or inaugurating a new project. Nor could it be that of the CM of a neighbouring state: after all, it was not dressed in saffron. In any case, his face would have drawn immediate recognition, now that it had become well-known thanks to multiple-page advertisements about the virtues of his state, carried frequently in all national dailies. Also, in keeping with the double-engine analogy, he always appeared along with (and respectfully behind) the PM; whereas, what I saw was only a single face.

Though very ordinary, the face was not that of the common-person next-door CM: an image apparently assiduously cultivated by this leader through posters, billboards, and more, regularly pasted all over the national capital. Nor was it that of the far less publicised image of my CM, visible nowadays – along with the PM – on G20 billboards (also on local Metro trains) triggered by a G20 committee meeting in my city. While appearing of the same age, it was certainly not of that yet-handsome movie star, whose face is on TV screens every few minutes – either extolling the virtues of a particular brand of cement, or a jeweller, or finance company or sometimes with a social message delivered in that unmistakeable baritone.

All these thoughts flashed through my mind in the few seconds it took me to recognise that comparatively not-so-familiar face. It was I, reflected in the mirror!

Before you conclude that I must be suffering from Alzheimer’s, or went through a brain fade, pause a moment. Think: if the mirror in your bathroom were to magically transform into a fairy-tale one, and was shown an image of you and those mentioned above, what would be its response to, “Mirror, mirror on the wall/ Who is the most familiar one of all”? After all, you see yourself but a few times a day (well, many times a day, for narcissistic selfie aficionados), while the images of some others are seen much more frequently.

Research indicates that humans begin to recognise themselves at around 18 months of age. Maybe this is an indication of consciousness: an awareness of the self, of one’s individuality. Our brains are geared to the super-fast processing of an image, enabling us to differentiate one person from another. Today, face recognition software enables computers to do this, matching a face in a crowd with one in a photograph. Very useful – and very scary.

You must have, at one time or another, gone through an experience similar to mine. You see someone who is definitely familiar, but it takes a few seconds to immediately place the person. Possibly this is due to an overload of visual stimuli that we face today. Whether previous generations met fewer people may be arguable, but certainly – thanks mainly to an overdose of television, videos or images on digital media, and movies – we see ever so many more faces. I can imagine these creating a virtual traffic jam in my brain as my own face-recognition processor sifts through images to match the person I am trying to identify!

Frequently seen faces are recollected quickly, probably along with the context. This is what advertisers bank on – hence, ads that use the same already-popular face, inevitably that of a celebrity. How effective is this? Even if it does aid brand recall and salience, does the use of celebrity help to sell more of the product? One can understand the link between a star endorsing a face cream, or an athlete promoting running shoes, but does it help to use a celebrity for endorsement of a product unrelated to the person’s profession – for example, movie stars endorsing water purifiers or cement? Advertisers pay huge fees to celebrities (mainly movie stars and sportspersons; the latter category now, fortunately, extends beyond male cricketers) in the conviction that there is a positive return on investment. Of course, these celebrities themselves derive a great RoI, making worthwhile any investment in honing professional skills (to reach national, if not international success)! One wishes advertisers would similarly use artists and writers. 

Political parties too clearly believe, like corporate advertisers, that flooding our senses with images in all possible media and outdoor spaces, including the use of larger-than-life cut-outs of leaders, has positive returns. Again, it doubtless aids familiarity and recall; but does it do more? In this instance, the product is often “credited” for some scheme, project or event. While one desired outcome is the promotion of the popularity of the leader and the party, the final goal is more votes at the polls. Does such blanket publicity help in this?

Marketeers have learned that recollection of an image is but a start; brand recall and salience may well be achieved too. However, sustainable success cannot be built on hype or mere promotion. At the end of the day, the product itself must have substance; it must meet the customer’s needs and expectations. If the product is a dud, it may well backfire on the company’s image and affect its other products too. The same is true for political parties too. Selling the “sizzle not the steak” may work briefly but, at the end of the day, like a souffle, it cannot merely be hot air.

The author loves to think in tongue-in-cheek ways, with no maliciousness or offence intended. At other times, he is a public policy analyst and author. His latest book is Decisive Decade: India 2030 Gazelle or Hippo (Rupa, 2021).

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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kiran karnik

Kiran Karnik

The author is an independent policy and strategy analyst, and alumnus of IIM Ahmedabad

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