Product Imagery and the Illusion of Reality: Some Insights From Consumer Esthetics

ABSTRACT - This paper defines product imagery as the manner in which a brand communicates with the consumer. A communication paradigm suggests distinctions among eight conceptually possible types of product imagery. However, apparent empirical correspondences focus attention on product-positioning, brand-image, and unique-selling-proposition strategies. These strategies function well when they convey compelling impressions of reality in product imagery. Such a phenomenon is analogous to the illusion of reality in visual art but involves prescriptive rather than merely descriptive aspects. Illustrations are provided by several anecdotal examples.


Morris B. Holbrook (1983) ,"Product Imagery and the Illusion of Reality: Some Insights From Consumer Esthetics", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10, eds. Richard P. Bagozzi and Alice M. Tybout, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 65-71.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10, 1983      Pages 65-71


Morris B. Holbrook, Columbia University

[The author gratefully acknowledges the support or Columbia University's Faculty Research Fund.]


This paper defines product imagery as the manner in which a brand communicates with the consumer. A communication paradigm suggests distinctions among eight conceptually possible types of product imagery. However, apparent empirical correspondences focus attention on product-positioning, brand-image, and unique-selling-proposition strategies. These strategies function well when they convey compelling impressions of reality in product imagery. Such a phenomenon is analogous to the illusion of reality in visual art but involves prescriptive rather than merely descriptive aspects. Illustrations are provided by several anecdotal examples.


Definition of Product Imagery

The terminology used to discuss product imagery might be characterized as a sea of confusion, awash in such ill-defined and overlapping concepts as "brand image," "product positioning," "differentiation," "unique selling proposition," "visual and imagery systems," "pictorial content," "creative copy claims," "imagination," "customer benefits," and "differential advantage." At some risk of injecting premature closure into a fertile area or inquiry, one might define product imagery quite broadly as the manner in which a brand communicates with the consumer. For reasons discussed later, this definition (I) goes beyond the narrower concept of "mental imagery" (c.g., Richardson 1969) and (9) avoids any commitment to the type or processing that occurs (e.g., verbal versus visual). Rather it stresses the overall communication process in which brands and consumers interact.

A Communication Paradigm or Product Imagery

The conventional Lasswellian model of communication distinguished source, message, channel, receiver, and effect. In the present treatment, however, the focal source (a producer or its agency) and receiver (the consumer) remain constant. Accordingly, key distinctions need be made only among different types of messages, processing channels, and effects. Such distinctions appear in the communication paradigm of product imagery shown in Figure 1. Each contrast will be elaborated briefly in the paragraphs that follow.



Significate versus sign. The distinction between significate and sign parallels a contrast drawn by Howard and Sheth (1969) between "significate" and "symbol," which in turn echoed the work of semiotic philosophers concerned with the difference between "symbol" and "referent" (Ogden and Richards 1923), "sign" and "denotatum" or "significatum" (Morris 1946), or "symbol" and "object" (Langer 1942). Briefly, a significate is the object itself--i.e., the physical brand or product of interest. A sign is some symbolic unit used to designate this object--i.e., part of an advertisement or other promotional message. This distinction between significate and sign therefore highlights the difference between a physical object on the retailer's shelf and its representation via words, pictures, music, or some other sign behavior. As in almost any such dichotomy, grey areas emerge. For example, the-product's packaging is part of the significate but may also serve as a sign to represent its own contents.

Discursive versus presentational. The distinction between discursive and presentational processes borrows some relatively unfamiliar terminology from Langer (1942) in an effort to avoid such oversimplified dualities as verbal/imagery (e.g., Paivio 19/1), successive/simultaneous (e.g., Das, Kirby, and Jarman 1979), and left-brained/right-brained (e.g., Ornstein 1972). Such narrower contrasts have recently commanded considerable interest in consumer research and may be shown to be closely related conceptually (Holbrook and Moore 1981).

Specifically, discursive thought processes refer to a type or experience in which elements are deal: with separately and sequentially over time. By contrast, presentational experience involves the simultaneous apprehension of a whole pattern so that "the various components...are presented all at once, as a totality; and we can perceive this as one configuration of...elements" (Weismann 1975, p. 13). In general, this contrast corresponds to Paivio's (1971) distinction between the verbal and imagery systems, but it would be a mistake to equate it with any simple-minded dichotomy between words and pictures. This point was argued at length by Holbrook (1982) and will be summarized only briefly here. First, note that pictorial content is not the only nonverbal phenomenon of interest. Rather other nonverbal processing modes such as taste, smell, touch, and some hearing must be considered important aspects or product imagery. In other words, nonverbal imagery is not purely visual but involves gustatory, olfactory, tactile, and auditory components (Richardson 1969; Samuels and Samuels 19,5). In the case of sound imagery (in sign behavior), for example, Dodge has recently introduced some powerful nonverbal components to reinforce its "Ram tough" theme with mighty thunder claps represented by the drums in Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain." A recent experimental study showed that real sweaters (the significates themselves) were evaluated not only by their visual impressions but also by their tactile sensations (Holbrook 1982). Second, in "verbal imagery," colorful words may trigger primarily visual cognitive responses, as in much poetic use of language (Holbrook 1982). Conversely, pictures may generate a stream of primarily verbal associations (Weismann 1975, p. 20). Third, pictures may be scanned sequentially (as when viewing a mural or comic strip) while the impact of words may depend on the simultaneity or their juxtaposed meanings (as in poetic expressions like "puddle wonderful" or "scar-crossed lovers"). Fourth, much processing may involve both discursive and presentational experience. Music, for example, contains both discursive forms (e.g., melody) and presentational patterns (e.g. harmony).

One must therefore avoid any easy equation of "discursive" with "verbal" or of "presentational" with "visual." Nevertheless, a loose correspondence does exist between these distinctions (Langer 1942; Weismann 1975). Similarly, both dichotomies parallel the increasingly familiar phenomena of cerebral laterality (Ornstein 1972): analytic/integrative, verbal/nonverbal, parts/whole, sequential/simultaneous, mathematical/spatial, logical/ emotional, linear/holistic, and scientific/creative. Much discussion and debate has centered on the physiological basis of hemispheric specialization, as revealed primarily in studies on patients with brain lesions or commissurotomies. Such investigative techniques are not yet considered acceptable consumer-research procedures. However, the proposed physiological bases of hemispheric specialization are probably of less concern to consumer researchers than are the differences between discursive (left-brained) and presentational (right-brained) processing. Whether or not they are rooted in neurophysiology, these differences are introspectively available in our subjective experience and were implicit in Aristotle's ancient contrast between "aggregates" and "wholes." This distinction has long been. recognized by philosophers of art, as in the work of Baumgarten (1714-1762), who first coined the term "(a)esthetics" (Osborne 1970).

Epistemic-utilitarian versus emotional-esthetic. The effect involved in product imagery may be relatively more epistemic or emotional (again, with plenty of grey area in between). A purely epistemic response would contain only cognitive content in the form of knowledge or beliefs. By contrast, an emotional response would involve cognitive components, but would also engage a set of inter-related physiological changes (e.g., autonomic arousal), affect (e.g., evaluative appraisals), and behavior (e.g., facial expressions). Good discussions of such complex emotional reactions have recently been provided by psychologists, but the role of feelings i.. the consumption experience has thus far received insufficient attention (Hirschman and Holbrook 1989; Holbrook and Hirschman 1982).

Epistemic and emotional responses tend to correspond, respectively, to utilitarian and esthetic value judgments. Though the parallelism is not perfect, utilitarian (extrinsic) value tends to result from beliefs about the way product imagery serves consumption needs whereas esthetic (intrinsic) value tends to hinge on an emotional response to the sign or significate appreciated for its own sake (Holbrook and Zirlin 1983).


Possibilities and Correspondences

Conceptually, any combination of message, processing, and effect types may occur in a particular case of product imagery. All eight conceptually possible combinations ap?ear in the cube-like diagram shown in Figure 9. The eight cells of this cube provide a useful classification of product imagery. However, tendencies toward empirical correspondence probably exist in the consumer's actual experience with product imagery. Tentatively, it might be expected that significates, discursive processing, and epistemic-utilitarian responses would occur together whereas signs, presentational processing, and emotional-esthetic reactions might correspond. Such speculative correspondences are best viewed as a bulging continuum with fuzzy edges (indicated by the pattern of dotted lines extending from the diagram's top-left front to its bottom-right rear). This fuzzy continuum appears to represent different product-imagery strategies that range from "positioning" (top-left front) to "brand image" (bottom-right rear) with the "unique selling proposition" or "USP" falling somewhere in between.




Ries and Trout (1981) view positioning as the attempt to create a product (significate) whose verbally descriptive properties--(discursive) prompt certain largely cognitive responses as a basis for purchase decisions (epistemic-utilitarian). Specifically, they argue that effective positioning involves significate-epistemic communication: "Positioning starts with a product. A piece of merchandise, a service, a company.... you position the product in the mind of the prospect" (p. '). Moreover, to combat information overload, they advocate the use of a "purified and simplified message" (p. 31) that works primarily through verbal (discursive) processing channels via "simple concepts expressed with simple words in a straightforward way" (p. 230). Not surprisingly, then, they stress the problem of choosing a brand name that adequately conveys its properties: "In the positioning era, the single most important marketing decision. .is what to name the product.... you must look for...a name that. .tells the prospect what the product's major benefit is" (pp. 86-87). Favorite success stories in this strategy of discursive signification include Head & Shoulders, Intensive Care, Slender, Close-Up, DieHard, Shake 'n Bake, Edge, and PeoPle (p. 87). Similarly, the promotional copy (sign behavior) that most interests these authors is that tied closely to the epistemic-utilitarian features of the brand itself (significate), as in the primarily verbal (discursive) claims for Beck's beer ("the most popular in Germany," p. 31), Tylenol ("for the millions who should not take aspirin," p. 77), Milk Duds ("America's long-lasting alternative to the candy bar," p. 176), Mailgrams ("impact of a Telegram at a fraction of the cost," p. 185), Nyquil (the "nighttime cold remedy," p. 916), and Schaefer ("the one beer to have when you're having more than one," p. 21,).

Brand Image

By contrast, the concept of brand image generally subsumes phenomena in which some pictorial symbol (sign) conveys a richly associative visual image (presentational configuration) that prompts related moods or feelings (emotional-esthetic). Reeves (1961), for example, describes the process whereby "brand-image campaigns communicate...with visual symbols instead of words": "Their sole purpose is to create images and moods.... The really valuable part of the brand-image theory is its emphasis on the visual symbol" (pp. 79-81). He credits Martineau (1957) as the most articulate spokesman for the brand-image strategy. According to Martineau (1957), "the product image or product personality. . . is a symbolic representation.... the overtone of affective meanings and subjective imagery...constitutes by far the most forceful elements of the symbol" (pp. 146-147). He sees advertising as "the task of molding a highly desirable brand image" (p. 193). In characterizing this sign behavior, he explicitly follows Langer's distinction between discursive and presentational forms (p. 138) and emphasizes the role of the latter:

this book shows why the various esthetic elements and the nonverbal symbols are so important (pp. vi-vii).... The visual symbols are highly significant carriers of meaning in any advertisement (p. 5).... the meanings from presentational symbols in art and music come through instantaneously in flash of intuition (p. 187).... nonverbal symbols...such as those in illustration...are not just a support for the word claims. They can contribute meanings and associations entirely apart and of much greater significance (pp. 197-198).

The effect of such presentational processing modes is to engage the consumer's emotional-esthetic responses: "all advertising is attempting to...attach emotional or esthetic associations, or both, to a purely physical object.... Emotion is. . . conveyed by the visual and nonverbal symbols" (p. 16). This perspective anticipated many of the points recently revived in Holbrook and Hirschman's (1982) account of "fantasies, feelings, and fun" as key components or the consumption experience. As examples of visually produced brand images, Martineau cites Hathaway (the eye patch), Schweppes (Commander whitehead), Marlboro (the tattooed cowboy), Breck (the virginal girls with shining golden hair), and Dove (the lady bathing in rich, creamy, white lather). However, one also recalls brand images like the Budweiser Clydesdale or the Maxwell House Teddy bear that may not have conveyed such emotionally relevant impressions.

Unique Selling Proposition (USP)

In a reaction against the latter extreme, Reeves (1961) advocates a middle ground in using product imagery to create a unique selling proposition or USP. In his view, verbal (discursive) and visual (presentational) elements should work together consistently to convey a vivid impression or the brand's key advantage: "Seek for a specific video interpretation of the U;S.P.... we need something to bring the bones and stones of...verbalization to life. We need. . .a pictorial flash. . . to illuminate the central concept" (pp. 109-111). Similarly, Ogilvy (1963) argued for a balanced emphasis on words and pictures in which "the illustration...should telegraph the same promise that you make in your headline" (p. 115): "words and pictures must march together, reinforcing each other" (p. 130). According to Reeves (1961), violations of visual-verbal consistency can produce "vampire video" which "sucks strength away from your main story" (p. 103). By contrast, an effective USP involves the wedding or verbal and visual product imagery into "a tight coil...a single incandescence" (pp. 34-35). Such a "fluid combination of words and pictures" (p. 68) appeared, for example, in the famous Anacin commercial showing that product getting into the blood stream faster than aspirin or Bufferin. Here, product imagery consists or both discursive and presentational elements held together thematically by one USP so that "the combination or the two can have overwhelming power" (p. 82).


Not coincidentally, Reeves (1961) entitled his book Reality in Advertising. Though he never actually defines "reality," he deals primarily with the question of what makes an ad compelling. Here, his arguments bear a close comparison to those often advanced in discussing the illusion of reality in visual art, as when defining the artwork as "a statement about the nature of reality" (Arnheim 1966, p. 96) or "a means for reaching into our experience of...the relation between reality and ourselves" (Weismann 19,5, p. 5). To guide our discussion of this comparison, the following sections will explicate an outline suggested by the parallelisms shown in Figure 3.



The Illusion or Reality in Visual Art

The process by which a representational work of art appears to portray its subject in a lifelike manner depends largely on illusion. As described by Liotard, "Painting...can persuade us through the most evident falsehoods that she is pure Truth" (Gombrich 1961, p. 33). In Walton's (1970) account, "paintings and people are very different sorts or things.... There is practically no danger of contusing them.... yet...many paintings strike us as resembling people, sometimes very much or even exactly" (p. 95). For example, if one closely examines a small section of a work by Titian, Hals, Velazquez, or Gainsborough, one rinds the canvas to be covered by a seemingly meaningless array of dabs, daubs, and dribbles.-- Considered at this micro-level or their "local" properties (Beardsley 1981, p. 83), these elements convey no clear image, much less a realistic representation. If one steps back and observes the picture's "regional" properties, however, one may experience a compelling sense of reality so as "to enjoy the sensation or visible brushstrokes disappearing behind the emergent illusion" (Gombrich 1961, p. 999). Interestingly, this illusionary effect appears clearly in today's computer-generated alphanumeric portraits. At close range, such pictures reveal only a meaningless jumble of little letters and punctuation marks, as in the detail of a mouth, nose, and eye shown in Panel A of Figure 4. As one moves away, a face begins to emerge (Panels B and C) until, from the proper distance, one encounters 3 powerfully lifelike illusion of the human visage (Panel D). How, by what miracle, can the representational artist create this illusion of reality?

Gombrich's (1961, 1963) answer to this question relies on the principle of schema-plus-correction. In his account, artistic vision (like all perception) begins with certain conventional formulas (or hypotheses) that incorporate what we already know about the object in question (our expectations). In amalgamating the ideas of Kant, Hayek, Popper, Gibson, and Bruner and Postman, Gombrich (1961) views artistic perception as involving "constant making guesses and modifying them in the light of our experience" (pp. 971-972). Just as ordinary perception is guided actively by available cognitive categories, the artist draws on stereotyped conventions for representing the subject of interest. But, when such schemata are transcribed to paper, they bear little resemblance to reality. Rather they look like empty diagrams of cognitive categories containing all the necessary elements without merging them into a convincing whole. Examples of such conventional schemata appear in most comic strips where the cartoon characters have all the requisite body parts (arms, legs, faces), but look like unreal abstractions.



Breakthroughs toward the illusion of reality occur when an artist departs from the available schema by correcting it to incorporate certain significant features. In other words, the artist begins with a stereotypical category that is then modified by meaningful departures. These corrections of the schema deal especially with interrelationships among the visual elements and are therefore concerned primarily with gestalt-like properties of the object represented. Together they suggest the impression of truthfulness and thereby convey the illusion of reality. This process of finding the proper corrective departures involves considerable experimentation "till the portrayal ceases to be a secondhand formula and reflects the unique and unrepeatable experience the artist wishes to seize and hold" (p. 173). Typically, the resulting corrections involve cue configuralities or feature interactions and depend on "relationships rather than individual elements" (p. 49): "artistic discoveries . . . do not depend on the imitation of individual features so much as on configurations" (p. 345). Thus, a portrait becomes "n schema of a head modified by the distinctive features about which we wish to convey information" (p. 88). One might compare the work of a skilled impersonator--like Rich Little--who, bs altering the gestalt of his posture, eyebrows, and jowls, can bear an uncanny resemblance to Richard Nixon even while remaining indisputably himself.

One does not easily find a concise summary of Gombrich's position, but he comes close to encapsulating the principle of schema-plus-correction in the following passage:

the procedure of any artist who wants to make a truthful record of an individual form...begins...with his idea or concept.... Having selected such a schema to fit the form approximately, he will proceed to adjust it...through the rhythms of schema and correction. The schema...represents the first approximate, loose category which is gradually tightened to fit the form it is to reproduce (pp. 73-74; cf. Arnheim 1966, p. 118).

In developing his history of art, Gombrich (1963) relies heavily on this principle of schema-plus-correction. For example, Egyptian artists produced stereotypical schematizations based on the body parts known to be present, portrayed in their most characteristic view (p. 36). Thus, one finds unrealistic mixtures of perspective (e.g., frontal views of the eye, shoulders, and hips, but side views of the head, arms, legs, and feet). When Egypt's stylized schematizations were corrected by the Greeks for the way people actually look (e.g., consistent side or frontal view), representational art made a major advance toward the illusion of reality (p. 52). Similar progress occurred in developing the illusions of lighted volumes, atmospheric effects, and three-dimensional-space (Arnheim 1966; Gombrich 1963; Weismann 1975). In the latter case, for example, centuries were required to perfect the devices by which distortions in the two-dimensional plane of a picture can convey the impression of depth perspective. Here, as in the case of Greek portraiture, advances depended on "the continued and systematic modifications of the schemata of conceptual art, till making was replaced by the matching of reality" (Gombrich 1961, p. 141): "Loewy...stressed the priority of conceptual modes and their gradual adjustment to natural appearances. Archaic art starts from the schema,... and the conquest of naturalism may be described as the gradual accumulation of corrections due to the observation of reality" (D. 118).

Schapiro (1953) also drew on the work of Loewy (Gombrich's teacher) to discuss the historical development of realistic representation from the schematized "conceptual representation" characteristic of children, untrained adults, and primitives toward the "perspective representation, according to direct perception of objects" (p. 99). More recently, Walton (1970) has described this process of schema-plus-correction via conceptualization-plus-observation in terms of a contrast between "standard" and "variable" properties in which "what we regard a work as resembling, and as representing, depends on the properties of the work which are variable, and not on those which are standard for us' (p. 96; cf. Arnheim 1966, p. 34).



Seeing Versus Knowing

The role of visual observation in correcting a conceptual schema recalls Berenson's (1953) contrast between "seeing" and "knowing" since what the artist knows (the schema) is elaborated to incorporate departures based on what ne sees (the correction) so that "the visual arts are... a compromise between what we see and what we know" (p. 3,), "between concept and observation" (p. 51).

A related process is described by Dretske's (1969) detailed philosophical analysis of epistemic seeing or what he calls "seeing that." In Dretske's (1969) view, epistemic seeing begins with pre-existing beliefs ("proto-knowledge") and involves a visual attainment based on sense experience ("incremental achievement").

An illuminating introspective experience of the difference between seeing and knowing can be had by working through c,)e examples and exercises provided by Edwards (1979; see also Samuels and Samuels 1975). Edwards argues that most of us cannot draw realistically because of our chronic orientation towards left-brained (discursive) thinking. If asked to draw something, we approach the assignment as a problem-solving task, bring all our logical, analytic, verbal powers to bear, and produce a visual representation or our relevant cognitive schema with each e Seeing included in its most conveniently nameable is derived from our knowledge of the object's isolated parts. In Figure 5, for example, Drawing A includes all the necessary racial elements (nose, mouth, eyes, eyebrows, ears, hair), but it arrays them in a highly stereotypical schema that illustrates the conceptual manner in which most of us draw--namely, like Egyptians.

If, by contrast, one approaches drawing in the right-brained manner (presentationally), one downplays the verbalizable cognitive schema (knowledge structure) and attends instead to configurations of light, shadow, and contour (seen visually) so as to attain a holistic apperception of the subject matter's relational qualities. Rather than naming the parts and then putting them on paper, one focuses on the visual gestalt, viewed relationally in terms of its interacting shapes and shadings. One draws not a nose but a pattern of contours and shadows, not a mouth but a configuration of inter-related light and dark areas. Subjectively, this process disengages one's logical, verbal thoughts (left brain) while engaging spacial visual images - (right brain). Such an experience produced Drawing B in Figure v. Here, features like the nose, eyes, and mouth appear as configurations of light and dark rather than as nameable, schematized components.

The Nature of Reality in Visual Art

Our discussion or the illusion or reality in visual art has thus far skirted the formal conceptualization of esthetic "reality" (Beardsley 1981, p. z). In seeking such a definition, we receive little help from the socialist/psychoanalytic/emotive view propounded by Caudwell (1937) in his book so tantalizingly entitled Illusion and Reality. Nor shall we limit our conception to anything so narrow as the artistic movement called "Realism" (or "Le Realisme") typified by Courbet's commitment to" particular type or subJect matter involving "the depiction of the low, the humble and the commonplace,... the worker, the peasant, the laundress, the prostitute... in all their misery, familiarity or banality" (Nochlin 1971, pp. 34-35). Nor, conversely, is our use so broad as to encompass the "internal" or "alternate" realities explored by Samuels and Samuels (1975) in their discussion of the cosmic, mystical, tantric, ecstatic, spiritual, transliminal, primordial, and parapsychological experiences involved in meditation, prayer, visions, fantasies, dreams, shamanism, and altered states of consciousness. Such phenomena may characterize some consumption experiences (Hirschman and Holbrook 1989; Holbrook and Hirschman 1989), but they lie beyond the present focus on visual art.

Rather, our analysis views "reality" in the sense intended by Renaissance artists concerned with naturalistic representation in "a generally clear pictorial space based on an assumption of fixed time and single location" (Weismann 197;, p. 241). Western art through the time of the Impressionists may be interpreted as an extension of this representational tradition (Gombrich 1963). Subsequent work, however, has often redefined the "reality" that the artist attempts to convey so as to take account of inner experience. Cubism, for example, explored the reality of "mix.ed perspective" by considering an object from a number of different viewpoints at the same time (Weismann 1975, p. 261). This temporally and spatially ambiguous reality may reflect the contemporary mind set in which "we experience our lives in terms of the simultaneity of the contents of consciousness" (Weismann 1975, p. 261). If so, one should not discount Arnheim's (1966) prophesy that "probably only a further shift of the artistic reality level is needed to make the Picassos... look exactly like the things they represent" (p. 117).

The Illusion of Reality in Product Imagery

A process analogous to that of artistic illusion appears to occur in the consumer's experience of product imagery so as to account for compelling effects in the sense implied by Reeves' (1961) focus on "reality in advertising," by Ogilvy's (1963) dictum that "a good advertisement... should rivet the reader's attention to the product" (p. 90), and by Martineau's (195/) insistence that advertising "must develop the power to move people" (p. 196). Returning again to Figure 3, one may view base product imagery as a product-class concept that represents the product category as a commodity. In other words, within the consumer's knowledge structure, the product is stored as a homogeneous good for which competing brands all possess identical product features (just as stylized, stereotypical artistic schemata possess the same conventional properties). The departure (cf. the correction of a schema) takes the form of some differentiation that provides customer value--that is, a significant single or configural feature that attains importance by moving the brand closer to the consumer's ideal point on some salient dimension(s) in the product space. This is what Ries and Trout (1981) call "Cherchez le creneau" or, in English, "Look for the hole" (p. 64). When consistent with customer values (i.e., the ideal point), such a departure produces a so-called "differential advantage" or "USP." Whether this differential advantage depends on a physical product characteristic (significate) or advertising appeal (sign) or both (sign-significate) depends on which aspect of product imagery is the basis for the brand-consumer communication.

The analysis based on Figure 3 stresses a parallelism between the illusions of reality in visual art and product imagery. However, a key difference between these two phenomena hinges on the fact that the artistic illusion is primarily descriptive in nature whereas the phenomenon in product imagery is primarily prescriptive. Specifically, the illusion of reality in visual art remains relatively free of value judgments. For example, one may regard a portrait or Lassie as extremely realistic even while personally hating collies and classing them among the ugliest and noisiest of God's creatures. By contrast, reality in product imagery involves the mediation of value judgments concerning a brand's departure from the commodity base. A differential advantage requires that this departure move in a valued direction (toward the ideal point). Thus, the design of a more beautiful collie that did not bark might provide compelling product imagery and thereby attain "reality" in this sense without necessarily achieving greater "realism" descriptively.


It may be helpful to attempt a formal summary of the comparative illusions of reality in visual art and product imagery. First, assume the psychic existence of quasi-Platonic (non-Universal) ideals that reflect the unique essences (or "quiddities") of particular objects or concepts. Second, suppose that the individuated essences are characterized by positions on a near-infinite number of dimensions that exhaustively specify all possible features and feature interactions so that, by definition, one can never apprehend these ideals directly. Then assume that, at any given moment, available cognitive schemata contain only a tiny subset of the relevant dimensions. Given these assumptions, illusions of reality in both visual art and product imagery depend on the modification of schemata by departures that move perceptibly closer to the forever unknowable ideals. The difference between these two illusions is that the first involves ideals based on descriptive truth whereas the second involves ideals based on prescriptive value.

In sum, the illusion of reality stems from the dynamic process of departing from stereotypical schemata and moving closer to unknown ideal essences. The illusion of reality in visual art is isomorphic with that in product imagery except that the relevant ideals are descriptive and prescriptive, respectively. Hence, the development of greater representational realism in the history or visual art parallels the gradual introduction of competitive developments intended to win differential advantages in marketing. But the latter rests on a value component not present in the former.

Some Anecdotal Examples of the Illusion of Reality in Product Imagery

In brief, the illusion of reality in product imagery may be viewed as a valued departure in how the brand communicates with the consumer. lo the extent that this departure ties together both discursive (e.g., verbal) and presentational (e.g., pictorial) components, it may occupy a strong position somewhere near the center of the product-imagery cube shown in Figure 7. Classic examples of wedding the pictorial image to the verbal positioning to create compelling product imagery (see Reeves 1961) would include the aforementioned Anacin commercial as well as those for M&M's (the hands with and without the melted candy), Vitalis (the white glove test on the greasy and nongreasy heads), Colgate (the invisible shield that stops the hockey puck from hitting the camera), and Band-Aids (attached to an egg that is then lowered into a pot of boiling water). Examples from recent advertising campaigns might include the commercials for Purina cat chow (a surprising feline dance routine), Sure deodorant (the Statue of Liberty magisterially lifting her torch to reveal a dry underarm), Intellivision (a cardboard cut-out of George Plimpton indicating the flatness of Atari's video display), Hawk cologne for men (a soaring bird superimposed on a heroically masculine mountain climber), and Raisin Bran (juxtaposed visual images of a little girl with half a bowl of cereal and no fruit left and her brother with just one raisin in the bottom of his bowl). In all these cases, pictures appear to reinforce a verbal appeal so as to generate compelling product imagery that supports a brand's differential advantage. But perhaps the quintessential anecdotal example of this phenomenon appeared recently in a commercial for Datsun trucks. The verbal appeal emphasized that Datsun's differential gear is high enough off the ground to avoid scraping small objects in the truck's path. The associated visual imagery featured professional bowlers who rolled balls under several competing makes of truck. One by one, the balls got stuck under each vehicle until the final ball rolled safely past the Datsun, thereby demonstrating the ultimate "differential" advantage.


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Morris B. Holbrook, Columbia University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 10 | 1983

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