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The treachery of images?

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In 1928, Belgian artist René Magritte took brush to canvas and painted a smoking pipe. This would not be remarkable in any way, except that he then wrote beneath the picture, "Ceci n'est pas une pipe." Translated from French, it means, "This is not a pipe."

Indeed, it isn't a pipe, but merely a representation of a pipe.

This brings to mind the writings of Plato who in his "Sophist" wrote that a copy of something original (like a picture of a pipe) is inferior to the original, and that a copy of a copy is even more inferior. (If I may be permitted, I'd like to point out that the notion of "greater inferiority" is an oxymoron. I'm just sayin'.) This is the concept of simulacrum, Latin for "similarity."

There's no doubt that if you want to smoke tobacco, Magritte's pipe—that is, his representation of a pipe—is useless or at least inferior to the pipe that was his model. On the other hand, other philosophers have argued that there really aren't copies of copies because every iteration is an original, Xerox notwithstanding. In fact, while Magritte's picture may be useless for smoking, it has far greater value than the original pipe model.

So does this have anything to do with marketing? Yes. You see, Magritte got his start in advertising. In fact, he was still in advertising when he painted the pipe and did it in the style of an advertising poster of the day. And when you think about it, this is what marketers do. We don't make a product; we make a representation of a product.

Does marketing do nothing more than create merely inferior representations of the original product? After all, Plato would say that we could never accurately depict the product we are trying to market.

And I'm OK with that. I say we shouldn't try. If we find ourselves trying to explain our product strictly through facts and figures and sizes and features, we'll most likely fall flat. But like Magritte, we can more succinctly capture the essence of a product than even a close examination of the original could provide.

We draw masterpieces through our use of words and images in a variety of media, electronic or otherwise. Our word choice or "voice" also represents our product. Are we clear, concise and customer-centric? Or perhaps we're aiming for fact-based, detailed and authoritative. You see, we employ many tactics to represent our companies and our products all day long.

"It's faster." "It's lighter." "It's creamier." "It's cheaper." "It's fresher." Marketing is not simply a weak attempt to define a product; we create original works that seek to bridge the gap between our customers' needs and our solutions.

It may not be a pipe and or even a great representation of a pipe. But it is a great representation of the concept of pipe.

Ginger Shimp is marketing director for small and midsize enterprises for SAP America (www.sap.com). The views and opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily those of SAP. She can be reached at gingership@gmail.com.

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