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Writing with pictures: toward a unifying theory of consumer response to images

University of Chicago Press Journals

A new paper by researchers from Oxford University and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign argues that images in contemporary consumer culture are an emergent form of writing. Appearing in the October issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, their premise is that mass communications technology has created a "cultural classroom" in which the world's first democratic pictography has developed. They support this argument with a series of experiments that demonstrate contemporary consumers' ability to read pictures - even abstract images - as statements of product features.

"The idea that pictures in commercial communication operate as writing is consistent with the world record, no matter how counterintuitive the notion may first seem," write Linda M. Scott (Oxford University) and Patrick Vargas (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign). "Speaking candidly, we would like to see the treatment of pictures as sensory data atrophy in the literature--the treatment of images as meaningful cultural material has, in our opinion, already shown enough robustness in the rhetorical stream and other studies mentioned above that the older viewpoint is no longer tenable."

In the experiments, different renditions of the same three image types (a cat, a sunset, and an abstract painting) were consistently read by consumers as texts that communicated a complex set of attributes for a facial tissue. Just by varying the style and context of the objects pictured, the authors were able to selectively communicate particular properties that went beyond resemblance to an object or the sensory effects of formal features.

"We are questioning the tacit assumption made by Mitchell and Olson - and many others that followed - that images affect consumers via emotion or sensation rather than through a coded, conventional system," the authors write.

Even in the case of the study with abstract paintings, in which participants were asked to read information from lines, shapes, and colors--but no discernible objects--clear messages were conveyed. The authors suggest that these findings have significant implications for studies of cognition, culture, and branding, particularly in a global environment where indigenous writing systems vary widely and the "postindustrial pictography" of the worldwide economy is spreading rapidly.

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Linda M. Scott and Patrick Vargas. "Toward a Unifying Theory of Consumer Response to Images" Journal of Consumer Research: October 2007.

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