What makes a story authentic in the age of Twitter? (or, Who cares where actors live?)

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  • October 28, 2011

The ad below was recently run as part of the Montana Congressional race. It was immediately RT’d across Twitter. Essentially the Montana candidate, Denny Rehberg, is criticized as “deceptive” for using stock ad photography of two seniors in a piece of collateral promoting his work on behalf of seniors, and included the generic tagline, “Looking Out for the Future of Montana’s Seniors.” The objection was that this particular piece of stock photography apparently is used in many countries when illustrating web-based stories about seniors. So the question is: does where the photography models actually live matter? Being that the photo was not portrayed as an actual couple by name, is this truly deceptive?

Presumably the models were photographed for use by a company that sells stock photography. This practice of using stock photography is so foundational to the advertising industry that no one seeks to question or care whether or Brand X is consumed by the generic figures shown in the advertisement. Taken a step further, no one even cares if Bill Cosby has a kitchen pantry full of Jello and Coca Cola, or that somewhere in America a little old lady is questioning the location of the beef patty in a generic burger only to later find satisfaction at her local Wendy’s. The ads, images and actors are understood to be props serving the larger idea of the story. And it is the story that matters.

However, when images are used on the behalf of the brand of a real individual the issue becomes trickier. For example, if there was a picture of Justin Bieber in front of a crowd of teenagers and it later turned out to be a crowd from a Rhianna concert which was photoshopped with Bieber’s image, there would be an understandable embarrassment. No one doubts that Bieber could command an audience of the same size, but people would question the authenticity of his personal brand. Newt Gingrich ran into this issue when his website featured a picture of himself and his wife, Callista, standing in front of a crowd of cheering flag-waving voters, who later turned out to be the same crowd seen in stock photography first used on the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s website with the slogan “We are the democratic majority.” Awkward.

This development may be nothing more than a phenomena specific to the world of politics; a field that prizes the resourcefulness of political adversaries ability to spin minutia and manufacture the mudpies that feed an insatiable appetite by a particular segment of the voting public. However, we need to consider the broader implications for storytelling around brand versus brand in the larger commercial context.  Image, voice and musical recognition software are on the verge of providing instantaneous identification for every segment of any composite piece. Ultimately this means, as a profession, we must resolve the issues of alignment between brand, intellectual property, and authorship in a world where the ontology of any artifact is completely transparent to the public.

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