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Visual Culture and Advertising

Date Posted: April 20, 2018Reading time: 4 minutes

We interact and learn about the world around us with the help of our senses. And our sense of sight is perhaps the most effective sense to convey a great deal of information in the shortest period of time. Undoubtedly, this has influenced the rise of something called visual culture.

Since the late fifteenth century, the production and circulation of information has become increasingly—and irreversibly—commodified across the globe. The effect? We’ve become more and more dependent on television news, the internet, and most recently, social media for our knowledge about the world. And in a very fast-consuming manner. Visual culture is not only concerned with these “visual events” in which information, meaning, or pleasure is sought by the consumer. It’s also concerned with emerging technologies that keep changing the way we consume these “visual events”.

Beyonce's pregnancy announcement photo.

Beyoncé portrait. In February 2017, Beyoncé posted a portrait of herself, taken by 29-year-old artist Awol Erizku, on Instagram to announce to the world that she was expecting twins. The photograph pictures the cultural icon donning a veil and clutching her belly in a way that recalls the Virgin Mary. Within hours, it became the platform’s most popular post of all time, clocking more than 7.2 million likes the first day it was published.

— Artsy, The 25 People Who Defined Visual Culture This Year

It is important to clarify that visual culture is not just about images or the technologies used to produce and distribute images. In fact, the term visual culture describes a particular relationship between seeing and knowing. So, pictures and new image technologies do not produce visual culture — in fact, these are its artifacts. By contrast, visual culture consists of the beliefs, values, and attitudes imbued in these artifacts, and the performances by the people that make, present, and use them.

Three billboards reading, respectively, “71 deaths. No arrest. How come?”.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri inspires Grenfell campaign. This year, BBH Labs created three billboards inspired by the Oscar-nominated film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri to remind people of the tragedy and the need to seek justice for those affected by the fire ripped through Grenfell Tower in West London, killing 71 people and leaving hundreds without a home. Community organization Justice 4 Grenfell has been driving three billboards around London that read: “71 deaths. No arrest. How come?”

— Creative Review, Three BIllboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri inspires Grenfell campaign

Counterintuitively, visual culture has not made communication more visual, per se. Many forms of communication are mixed, and therefore cannot be regarded as either purely visual or purely literary. A great example of this hybridization can be found in advertising; a discipline where images, words, moving pictures, and sounds combine to form meaning.

Advertisers reach their target audiences by various means: newspapers, magazines, cinemas, billboards, television, the internet, social media, and increasingly, virtual reality. Advertising seeks to persuade consumers by providing information, meaning or pleasure — the latter is the crucial part of the experience of visual culture.

An illuminated "Corona" sign at Paraiso Secreto.

Corona’s Paraiso Secreto, a virtual reality experience in Mexico City, uses technology to simulate a journey through the jungle to a beach for guests. Aiming to create the feeling of being immersed in nature, Corona hoped to inspire people to spend more time outside and ease their daily stresses through this experience.

The Fearless Girl sculpture facing the Wall Street Bull sculpture.

State Street Global Advisors: Fearless Girl; agency: McCann New York. On March 7, 2017, in time for International Women’s Day, a bronze sculpture of a young girl appeared in the financial district of New York, facing off the famous ‘Wall Street Bull’ sculpture. The campaign is not without controversy: in October it was revealed that State Street’s parent company had been guilty of opposing gender equality. While this clearly demonstrates the need for purpose-driven advertisers to practice what they preach, it’s hard to deny the ambition of the Fearless Girl project, and its dynamic expression of the need for female equality at the top of business.

— Creative Review, Ads of the Year

To summarize, visual culture provides aesthetic pleasure and countless other kinds of enjoyment to all of us. After all, humans would not pay it any attention, or indeed produce it, if it did not. However, this is not the ultimate goal of visual culture. In most instances, the aim of visual culture is the communication of ideas, values, moral messages and stories. Pleasure is the means by which visual culture persuades and seduces us to look and listen, while ideas are delivered or conveyed. And when an idea is conveyed effectively and emotionally, it’s really something to see.