Speaking in slogans

Words can speak a thousand pictures, says Adam Woolf

Adam Woolf, managing director, ProseWorks
Adam Woolf, managing director, ProseWorks

As I was munching on my second chocolate biscuit at a recent charity function, a trustee approached me.

"You wordsmiths can come in handy," he said. "But pictures are what counts. We live in a visual world - a picture speaks 1,000 words."

Sensing that I could not respond to this comment without embarking on a lengthy and fruitless discussion, I simply nodded my head in agreement. But now I would like to put up a more robust defence.

We do live in a visual world. Charities compete for our attention and affection. To succeed, they must use strong visual imagery and branding.

Visuals, especially photographs, are important because they provoke an immediate response. They can explain, appal, excite, outrage, uplift and enlighten, sometimes all at the same time. Words cannot compete with the powerful emotional response that pictures can provoke.

However, the power of pictures to deliver an immediate response is often offset by their inability to leave a lasting impression. This is where words come to the fore: carefully crafted slogans, straplines and headlines can last longer in the memory than any image.

Remember the "naughty but nice" 1970s cream cake adverts penned by the author Salman Rushdie, then a humble advertising copywriter? No one can remember the visuals, but the phrase lives on 40 years later.

I have a more personal example. I attended a CND rally in the 1980s. The details of the day remain a blur, but I do remember a banner slogan: "Britannia waives the rules". It lodged in my memory because it was concise, clever and witty. It summed up the indignity and injustice of the UK's nuclear weapons policy.

And there are all those famous tabloid headlines. We all have our favourites. But we rarely remember the images they accompanied.

I don't recall Christian's Aid logo, but I know its strapline: "We believe in life before death". It works because it shows the charity's humanity, reflecting the Christian message in a way that appeals to believers and non-believers alike.

I've also seen a few Oxfam posters recently. All I remember is the "Be humankind" slogan. It lodged in my mind because it's a clever pun, it's a positive and powerful call for action and it plays on our desire to contribute to a better world.

Visual imagery will always be of huge importance, and pictures can speak 1,000 words. But rather than dodging the issue and enjoying the rest of my biscuit, perhaps I should have said that a few well-crafted words speak louder, and for longer, than 1,000 pictures.

- Adam Woolf is managing director of copywriting agency ProseWorks

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