How to use stock photos to generate better ad ideas

“Ad-libs” by John Foust


Daniel told me about an ad he created for a commercial real estate firm. “They prided themselves on the hard work they did for their customers. Their marketing manager said ‘shoe leather’ was their secret of success. When I heard that, I knew it would work in their ads.

“I found a stock photo of a shoe with a hole in the sole, then asked our creative department to enlarge the hole to make it more dramatic. The copy described the advertiser’s willingness to wear out their shoes to serve their customers. That photo was a real winner. It became the theme for everything they advertised.”

Stock photography can be an important addition to your creative toolbox. Here are some points to keep in mind:

John Foust, advertising, ad-libs, stock photos
John Foust
  1. Look for an image to illustrate an idea you already have. That is what Daniel did. “I knew I needed a picture of a shoe,” he said. “It was just a matter of finding the right one. A photo worked better than a drawing, because it was a picture of an actual shoe. Sure, we modified it, but the end product was still a real shoe.”
  2. Browse through images to find a new idea. Sometimes you’ll have a general concept in mind. You just need a visual image to crystallize the idea.

Let’s say you’re developing a campaign for an investment company that has a long history of helping people navigate the ups and downs of the economy. Their philosophy is, “There’s no need to worry. Your investments are safe with us.”

You look through some stock images and find several distinct categories to consider — people, objects, activities and places. They all offer opportunities to use comparisons and hyperbole.

To consider a few generic examples … could a mountain climber represent the company’s expertise in moving onward, regardless of the unpredictable twists and turns of the economy? Could a lighthouse symbolize the firm’s guiding principles in protecting their clients’ retirement accounts? Could a padlock represent their commitment to financial safety?

What about the advertising for a home builder? Could a paintbrush symbolize their meticulous attention to detail in the homes they build? Could a clock represent the fact that their houses sell quickly, because they are so popular?

  1. Don’t hesitate to modify an image. Like Daniel modified the stock photo of the shoe, you can customize an image to fit your specific situation. “The change made the selling point more noticeable,” he said. “I knew the shoe would appear in small ads, as well as large ads — and I didn’t want anyone to miss the point.”
  2. Be sure to check the usage agreement. Even if your publishing company has purchased a collection of stock images, do some research before you present an idea to your client. You’ll want to make sure you have the proper permission to use the image how you want — and as many times as you want.

Without a doubt, the “stock market” for photographs is a great place to find ideas.

(c) Copyright 2019 by John Foust. All rights reserved.

John Foust has conducted training programs for thousands of newspaper advertising professionals. Many ad departments are using his training videos to save time and get quick results from in-house training. E-mail for information: john@johnfoust.com

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