It can be hard to find an advertisement that doesn’t prominently feature an individual’s face. A quick image search of Moat displays an ad inventory for Wells Fargo that illustrates what I’m talking about:
Almost all of the results feature happy people of various ages and races to support a request to “click to learn more.”
Digital marketers have a tendency to use people in ads. After all, human faces can add warmth and emotion that helps support an intended tone for a specific brand or product.
But there’s one big problem: Using faces can drastically hurt your ad performance.
Facing the Misconception
Our eyes gravitate toward the faces of human subjects. On first thought, this might be seen as a strategic element: Simply use human faces in ads to draw in more attention. Unfortunately, getting attention is the easy part; keeping it is a challenge. This is seen in Facebook users on mobile devices who engage with content for an average of just 1.7 seconds before moving on.
Viewers have another tendency that marketers should take note of: Instead of reading the headline of an image, consumers will skip it and direct their attention to the image itself. A recent eye-tracking study, “Eye Gaze Cannot Be Ignored,” demonstrated this effect with a webpage showing a baby looking directly at the reader.
Although the page featured a sizable headline complete with supporting text, the baby’s face drew in the majority of attention. For marketing purposes, this ad failed because images alone rarely convey all the information associated with an ad.
Besides attracting the wrong kind of attention, featuring faces can also unintentionally alienate certain viewers. Humans are quick to pass judgment on other human subjects, and the Perception Institute explains that everyone holds some degree of implicit bias. Showing faces in ads can perhaps attract specific customers, but because most target audiences include large and diverse demographics, you also run the risk of making an unfavorable impression.
An adage that I like to follow when considering target audience is “resonate; don’t alienate,” and more often than not, faces do the latter. In my years of testing cross-channel ads to billions of impressions at AOL, I quickly discovered that ads with people almost always depressed reader or viewer response. Without fail, ads with no photography or a more neutral environmental use of photography outperformed ones that relied primarily on human faces.
3 Faceless Visual Approaches to Consider for Better Response
As it turns out, there are plenty of alternative ways to include visuals in your advertising campaigns that boost engagement across the board.
Here are three to help you get started:
1. Environmental Photography
Photography is an important source of effective ads, but be wary of the obvious people-centric route. If you’re advertising a TV subscription service, mix things up from the normal shot of a smiling, popcorn-eating family on the couch. Instead, show the family in the same living room environment with a view from behind to the emphasize the TV experience, ideally with something compelling on the screen.
2. Product Visuals
Another approach is to focus on product visuals related to what you are selling. For example, if your product is the internet, show a laptop or tablet screen with an eye-catching message on it. While some might think this approach conveys less personality than lifestyle photography, a product-centric approach outperforms almost every time.
3. Creative Illustrations
While it’s not the best approach for all brands, illustrations are another effective way to diffuse a viewer’s inevitable judgment. For example, illustrated ads are largely responsible for helping Duluth Trading Co. achieve impressive growth in the competitive clothing industry. It depends on your brand and the product and service you are selling, but illustrations with less realistic representations of people should have fewer response-hurting consequences. So if you really want to show a person experiencing your product or service, use your best judgment on whether a more characterized illustration approach is the right call.
Humans are a social bunch, and it’s in our nature to have subliminal positive and negative responses as we relate to one another. As a marketer, it’s important to keep these associations positive. By using photography with a heavy focus on human faces in ads, you’re at risk of hurting engagement and response. While it might take a little extra effort to hit the right note, consider environmental photography, product visuals, or even illustrations to get better results.