The Persuasive Power of an (Ad) Image

Most print ads ask only that you notice them; the best also ask you to think.


In a previous post, I discussed René Magritte’s painting, The Treachery of Images, and examined how a visual work can convey a complex persuasive argument. In advertising, most single-image ads do little more than capture our attention for a moment; their aim is typically more brand awareness and recognition than the presentation of a serious argument. Once in a while, however, we come across ads that try to persuade us of something that goes beyond the values of a brand or the features of a product. Below is a baker’s dozen of some of my favorite recent examples of argument through a single image (sometimes with a little text). A few combine emotion or humor with their argument, but they all demonstrate the power of visual media to present a persuasive message.


1. Adot, UK



Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote that “the pen is mightier than the sword,” and this ad effectively reimagines the idea for the conflict that defines the current moment.


2. Crisis Relief Foundation, Singapore



This ad does an amazing job of staying clear of sentimentality while delivering its exhortation to do more than click.


3. BUND, Germany



One of the most effective illustrations of the “time is running out” warning I have seen in a while, this ad blends the imagery of desperation with a donation appeal that is simple and direct.


4. Gorila, Slovakia



It would be hard to imagine a more succinct argument against communism and for the power of books to change lives.


5. World Wildlife Foundation, USA



The repetition of one word can be a powerful rhetorical technique, and here we see it used with chilling simplicity.


6. Center for Psychological Research, China



In this image, the magnification of the barrier metaphor delivers the ad’s argument both figuratively and physically.


7. Red Cross, Columbia



This wonderfully lyrical image reaches almost poetic heights in its depiction of the potential that all people have to help their fellow human beings.


8. City of Hope, Emirates



A stark image is used as both an exhortation and, perhaps, a warning to those members of society who resist change.


9. New Art Mission, India



The repurposing of an existing phrase against an arresting image is quite common in visual advertising, but this ad rises above the ordinary because the look on the girl’s face is more questioning than accusatory, and by the selection of a newspaper — a symbol of the nation’s collective mindset — to make the garment which covers her.


10. DIF, Mexico



A novel’s arc cannot be captured in one image, but this ad certainly tries in its startling argument that a mother’s cruelty can echo throughout a lifetime of sorrow.


11. Stabilo, Germany



We often use the term “highlight” to pick out something important in a photograph; here, the yellow highlight suggests a synthesis of complex arguments about history, sexism, and the validity of public recognition.


12. Abrinq Foundation, Brazil



It would be easy to miss the argument against child labor practices that underlie the modern fashion industry in this image, but the subtlety, once recognized, is part of what gives the ad its memorable persuasive effect.


PS: A final (daring) image from Poland imagines what might have been, had a certain audience not been persuaded.