Pictures. Are they really worth 1,000 words?

A picture is worth a thousand words. Everyone says so.

But is that really true in all cases everywhere?

I’d say not in all cases. Not in advertising, anyway. Here’s why. 

Paintbrush resting on a white card, with splodges of different paints

A picture isn’t necessarily the best use of advertising space. Test what works for your audience.

Ads are expensive. Pictures in ads are very expensive because they take up a lot of space, space that could be used for selling your product. So unless you’re very sure a picture will add value to your advert, think twice before you use one.

This is particularly true with small ads, where you have very limited space anyway.

Having said that, images can be very effective. But only if you choose the right images and use them in the right way.

All this stuff is based on actual research, in case you were wondering where I got it. It’s stuff that’s been tried and tested and measured over years and years of advertising, by people much cleverer than me.

Before we start, I think you’ll find this next information really useful.

When we land on a website or look at a page in a magazine, our eyes enter on the top right, then they scan left and read what’s there, then they drop down the page (or screen) under what we call “reading gravity”.

So the main picture should go right across the top or in the top right corner.

Everything you write should have a headline: no exceptions. But if there’s an image taking up a big portion of your ad space (or webpage), put the headline under the image because the image pulls the eye more strongly than the headline.

If you put the headline above a big image, it won’t get read, and that’s important because the headline often gives context to the rest of the ad. It’s not natural for the eyes to scan upwards again; they’ll fall down under reading gravity.

When it comes to choosing your image – first off, make sure it is relevant. Don’t use abstract pictures or illustrations because the reader won’t connect that with your product and they’ll probably turn the page (or walk away, or click away, or whatever).

Give every image a caption – always – because captions always get read. It’s a chance to stick your main selling message in and guarantee your prospect will read it.

Use an actual photograph of your product, not an illustration, and try to show the product in use. People like to see a slice of life. They want to see the thing being advertised in use.

For example, if you’re selling garden hoses, show someone using a hose. And don’t stick a glamorous woman in a bikini in the picture with your hose. Men will look at the woman in the bikini and ignore the product, you’ll piss women off and they’ll ignore the product – so nobody will notice what it is you’re trying to sell. (This goes for car and motorbike ads too, by the way. They’re some of the worst offenders. People might look, but not for the right reasons. There’s been research done on this too.) Use somebody like the people you’re trying to sell to. If you’re aiming at older people, show older people. If you’re aiming at men, show a man.

Here’s a fascinating fact for you: faces do best. Especially if they’re looking out of the page at you. Right from infancy, we’re “trained” to look at and recognise faces, because they’re the first things we see.

Babies’ faces pull men’s and women’s eyes; women’s faces pull the eyes of both sexes; men’s faces tend only to pull men’s eyes. Odd, huh? I’ve no idea why; I just know it happens.

And finally: please don’t use crap stock images! You’re not fooling anyone. It looks contrived, cheap and fake – and do you really want people to have that impression about your business? Didn’t think so.

As usual, my caveat to all this advice about images is TEST. Test everything, see what works.

Apart from the scientific stuff about eye tracking, everything else is open to debate. So if you try something that works better for your particular ad than what I’ve suggested here, fab – I’d love to hear about it, because although it may be specific to you, it’s still interesting and may be useful to others.

Happy snapping!



Vicky Fraser is a copywriter, author, and entrepreneur. She really did run away with the circus… but when she’s not swinging from a trapeze, she’s showing other copywriters and small business owners how to work with better clients, make more money, and stop missing bathtimes, first words, and dinners with angry partners. In fact, she wrote the book on it. Get your copy here.

PS The most successful ad of all time made more than $2 billion over its lifetime. Did it have a picture do you think?

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