The Power of Random Images

When Being Nobody in Particular Is Actually Being Somebody

By Published on .

Eric Henderson Eric Henderson
When we speak of diversity, the word itself becomes impolitic when we think of it as a zero-sum game. It should be, if we think like that.

Let's shelve that line of thought for a moment and take another approach.

What if we were to open up and see the full range of possibilities instead? What if there were, in fact, room for all ... and room to spare? (There is.) I think we do sharp advertising minds a bad turn when we declare a cease-fire on the insight synapses and simply argue from flat emotion. You don't do your advertising like that; if you did, all of your work would be the repetitive, literal, emotional screeds. "Buy this now!!" or "It is the right thing for your teeth!"

I propose that we add to our honest but tired body of literal discussions on diversity a subtle application, one that can be another proof of the real and positive influence of diversity without politically correct baggage.

Let's start at the department store of yesteryear. You need a picture frame. In years past, you could safely bet that the "sample family" in the frame would not be black, Asian, Hispanic, other.

And those random hands, feet, arms, etc. that would show up on various other products on department-store shelves? They could easily have been the appendages of that same sample family. The babies on the toilet-paper packaging? Offspring.

If, indeed, we tend to be racialized in our thought, we could have pushed the issue back then by putting many different colors of people on the shelves, randomly, and expected people, in the worst of cases, to only buy the picture frame or toilet paper whose packaging depicted their mirror images. A sad commentary considering what we have in common when we buy a picture frame, not to mention what we have in common when we buy toilet paper. (Nothing gratuitous here. It should appear just that silly, because it is.)

But, how long do you think that worst case would hold, even in 1970, for example? It would just be cumbersome, if anything. What would you do if they ran out of "your family" on the shelves? Refuse to buy?

That is, if we had thought to use random images of many different types of people, images of the people who show up next to us on the street and on our jobs, we might at least find ourselves on one road to subtly (and powerfully) seeing ourselves for what we are: just people. I honestly don't think we would have seen, even back then, color boycotts of picture frames or toilet paper.

More importantly, however, those random images would have embedded themselves in our minds without fanfare and gotten us used to seeing each other in many different situations.

On the other hand, when the images result from lobbying or central casting, they have a more difficult time escaping being seen as stylized figures, mapping point for point both the positive and negative stereotypes.

So, random images are intrinsically more powerful than stylized ones. I know that seems to counter even the history of protests against stereotypes. It doesn't, but let's leave that for comment as we move on.

Think about television: What if you had a sitcom without a forced rainbow retrofit? What if a "black" show had a white person on it and we didn't find ourselves waiting on the moment where she did something to show that "she don't know nuttin' 'bout this heah?" What if the "white show" had more than just one cool black guy? And, if it had two hispanics, what if they weren't automatically friends? All of these have fit easily into our everyday reality for quite a while now.

Ethnicity is not as relevant as we make it for all situations or products. What color hand on that laptop print ad will make your computer not crash? Truly, we can afford to mix it up a little bit.

Sure, at first, we'd be waiting for the race punchline in certain situations, but after a decent amount of time of just random people acting like their individual selves (like we do every day) and random images just showing up on tags and packages, I believe the power of the story line or the insight that the account planner worked hard to find would take over and not only deliver the product message, but also show us outside of our stylized racial selves.

This is not to suggest a homogenized view of all of us melting into some single culture or that faintly brown amalgaface the mags like to mash up for covers. On the contrary, I am suggesting that we use the full range of culture, phenotype, genius, idiocy and personal political leaning that is found within any racial group.

To be nobody in particular would then make each of us a somebody not to be called upon simply as a default figure or as a pony for special occasions. Now, have I shot all except the money ball? Am I asking for a group hug?

Never. Freeing ourselves from an unnatural constriction is the definition of efficiency. Further, you know that people enjoy seeing themselves as people, appreciating their own cultures, but not being individually contained by them. Communicating in this vein requires some skill and tact. But if you get it right, we'll buy. Again, random images are more powerful motivators.

A long road maybe, and bumpy at first, but just a thought.

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Eric Henderson is director of communications for Living Cities.
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