by Chin Lu
In 1972, British author John Berger co-produced a BBC four-part series called “Ways of Seeing.” These TV programs created quite a stir at the time: Challenging the almost religious mystification of famous Western art, calling out misogyny in paintings and modern advertisements, and exploring what the reproduction of art and reality through photography mean. Soon the influential series was turned into a book—serving as an introductory art history or media studies textbook for many students around the world, including me.
In short, Berger urged each one of us to carefully view and think critically about the images we consume, whether it’s the historical symbolism in a Renaissance tableau hanging at the museum, the post-production manipulation of a print ad in a lifestyle magazine, or the legitimacy of a photograph in an online publication.
Earlier this year, Berger passed away at the age of 90 (RIP), but his work is still highly important: A picture is worth a thousand words, and in this current era of fake news and alternative facts, critical analysis of imagery is more crucial than ever.
Our strategy team revisited Berger by watching the TV programming in the span of a few weeks as a tribute. It was a great reminder of our responsibilities as professionals in the industry formerly known as advertising.
More and more consumers are demanding authenticity in advertisements: For example, there’s an increasing need and desire to see realistic imagery of products on “real women” instead of Photoshopped images of models with rare proportions—And they sell better, too! And for brands deciding to participate in cause marketing, they should expect to publicly provide transparency on how the company is walking its talk with action and internal changes.
Art is always political, and Berger taught us to contemplate the intentions of the image’s creator when viewing work, including ads. While I’m glad to see the recent increase of female empowerment in “femvertising,” it’s worth repeating again and again that diversity of representation both in front and behind the camera every step of the process is crucial for producing work that actually resonates with the changing population and mindsets of America: whose story is it to tell, who gets to tell the story, and who profits from the story are all factors that can no longer afford to be considered as afterthoughts in this politically significant time.