Topics & themes

Research on advertising’s larger topics and themes from audience attention to measuring effectiveness.

Which works best - text or images?

Back in 2014, in an article about the demise of the long copy ad, Campaign quoted veteran UK copywriter Neil French, who famously noted: “How many times have you been in a client meeting, and he’s announced 'People don’t read copy anymore'? This coming from a man with a newspaper poking out of his briefcase. And if you point this out, he says, ‘Well, I do, of course. But the public doesn’t.’”

It is often said that we are becoming a more visually biased society. Content with strong visuals is most likely to be shared on social media: Facebook posts with images see 2.3 times more engagement than those without images. (Buzzsumo, 2015). Behavioural scientists have shown that when we're making a snap judgement about a fact, the mere presence of an accompanying photograph makes us more likely to think it's true, even when the photo doesn't provide any evidence one way or the other (Newman EJ, Garry M, Bernstein DM, Kantner J, and Lindsay DS 2012).

Ads with a strong visual idea are far more likely to be lauded at Cannes and similar awards events than a long copy ad – or perhaps there just aren’t many ads with copy entered? Yet eye-tracking technology also shows that a powerful headline or piece of copy can attract as much, if not more attention, than a powerful image.

Are long copy ads dead – or just the art of creating them? We know that there is a huge amount of misunderstanding about readership of print newspapers. Yes, it has declined as more people than ever before are reading newsbrands digitally. Yet the numbers reading print are still very substantial. The latest NRS data shows that 14.3 million people still read a print national newspaper daily (27% of the adult population), just over 26 million (50%) read weekly and 32.6 million (62%) read every month. Perhaps these readers are also able to appreciate a long copy ad?

Using the RAMetrics database, we investigated which measures were most responsive to three different types of print ad: ads that are mainly image(s); ads that are mostly text; and ads that are balanced between image and text.

Firstly, it is clear that image-based ads score higher for ad recall: on average, 61% of readers recall seeing ads that are mostly visual compared with 56% of readers noticing ads that are predominantly text. However, the highest average impact score (65%) are for ads that balance text and image.

Overall, ads that are primarily visual outscore ads that are text based, but most differences are small. The biggest differences are around new information, design appeal and emotional reaction:

  • Contrary to expectation, ads that are mainly text are less effective at delivering new information
    We might expect readers to garner more information from text heavy ads, but 32% of readers score image-based ads highly for new information, compared with 25% for ads that are mostly text
  • Visual ads are deemed more interesting and feel fresher
    Ads that are mainly text score less well for being highly interesting (24%) than those that mostly contain images (27%) or have both images and text (28%). Visually strong ads are also more likely to be highly commended for their fresh design approach (31%) than text ads (25%)
  • Images drive a more emotional reaction
    Just 8% of readers say they react emotionally to ads that are mostly text, compared with 15% for ads that are mostly image and 18% for those that have both image and text
  • Image + text is best for activation
    Ads that contain both visual(s) and copy tend to achieve a more balanced performance and are stronger at driving actions

Does that mean that it is all over for the long copy ad? We believe not. It’s not really the amount of text and image that matters, it’s the strength of the creative. The category of advertiser will also have a bearing. Among the text based ads in the RAMetrics database are several for a funeral directors. We can hazard a guess that it’s not very easy to seduce the reader on this subject!

Image based ads are both the best recalled (100%) and the worst remembered (10%). The best copy rich ads can easily compete with image-led executions – but it is probably also true that there is a greater level of craft skill required for a good long copy ad than there is for an ad that relies on a striking visual.

One thing that we can be certain of is that there will be an increased need for storytelling in the future. The need for quality, creative communications – whether we call them content or advertising – will only increase. This might be done entirely through visual means, pictures and video, with maybe a bit of text to show the way. However, it would be a brave advertiser who turned their back on the power of the written word. People are reading more books, they are reading more newsbrands across all platforms, they are reading more words than ever online. There should still be a role for beautifully crafted, engaging copy.

View more RAMetrics insight

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