Photography-Based Advertising in the Digital Age: A New System of Meaning-Making

Emily Rothkopf

Abstract: This article explores the changing landscape of photography-based advertising in the digital age.  Marketers today are faced with a more competitive and visually over-saturated playing field and have developed new ways to stand out and register with consumers.  What are the new predominant themes, styles and semiotics of successful ad campaigns?  By understanding the history of photography-based advertising, reviewing industry-related research, and dissecting several present-day ad campaigns, a new formula for the marketing medium is revealed.


In a capitalistic sense, photography is a tool for artists, journalists, and marketers.  The use of the medium has evolved across all industries over the past century, particularly with the emergence of the digital age, and the lowered barrier to entry that has been created by the advent of digital cameras, smart phones, and social-media sharing platforms.  Artists now have a more crowded playing field and a greater need for distinguishing work.  Journalists have a more superfluous supply to publish from, yet a greater sense of urgency and ‘race-to-post’ mentality.  But it is marketers that perhaps have the greatest challenges; photographic advertisements now have to compete with the cluttered media, stand out in markets saturated with imagery, and appeal to new visual ideals.  Additionally, while art exhibit patrons and news readers still take about the same time to absorb a photographic image, consumers are clicking, scrolling, and fast-forwarding through advertisements quicker than ever.  When examining the photography-based advertising that exists in magazines, newspapers, billboards, and most importantly – online, there is a new set of rules for companies that seek to register with and appeal to the new digital age audience.  The glossy, glamorized approach to print advertising still exists, but it has been remixed with more organic, social-media and pop-culture inspired imagery.  What are the common themes in this new system of photography-based advertising?  And what are the visual codes or semiotics involved in this new, rapid meaning-making process?

Pre-Digital Age: A Brief History

“In modern capitalist societies the camera has proved to be an absolutely indispensable tool for the makers of consumer goods…camera images have been able to make invented ‘realities’ seem not at all fraudulent and have permitted viewers to suspend disbelief while remaining aware that the scene has been contrived” (Rosenblum 2007).

Lady Esther Face Powder 1934 (source:

Lady Esther Face Powder 1934 (

Photography in advertising can be traced back to the late 1800s when the halftone printing process was developed, where imagery could be produced in one color ink via various sized and spaced dots.  This process allowed magazine and newspaper publishers to print photographs alongside text.  However, it was not often used in advertising due to the high cost of studio photography; drawn illustrations remained the preferred method.  It was the industrial movement in the 1920s that led to the emphasis of advertising and exploration of new methods to make products stand out among the newly competitive consumer market.  Product marketers began to understand the psychology behind consumption and found photography a means to project the highly coveted messages of realism and truth.  The Photographers Association of America explained that people “believe what the camera tells them because they know that nothing tells the truth so well” (Marchand 1985).  Photographic imagery began to emerge as the most persuasive sales tool and thereby the preferred medium moving forward in the print advertising industry (Harvard Business 2010).

Chanel 1957 (source:

Chanel 1957 (

Initially, photography-based advertising relied on a very direct approach, clearly depicting and explaining the product and its benefits.  However, when consumer psychology and creative direction were applied, a new form of suggestive advertising arose.  This approach focused on the atmosphere, rather than the object, through pictorialist photography – soft focus, dramatic lighting, heavy retouching, stage sets, etc. (Brown 2000).  Clarence H. White, American photographer, teacher and pioneer in the ‘photography as an art form’ movement, educated budding photographers on a new ‘fusion of beauty and utility.’  He emphasized the need to employ design and fine-art principles – close-up views, spare geometric compositions, oblique vantage points, tonal contrast, and sharpened focus (Yochelson 1996).  Edward Steichen, another pioneer in advertising photography during the 1920s, developed a style whereby marketers could project ideals, aspirations and fantasies by depicting glamour, beauty and elegance, instead of just a straightforward shot of a product (Johnston 1997).

Marlboro 1978 (source:

Marlboro 1978 (

Post-war advertising shifted towards depicting middle-class family ideals, much of which was geared towards the female home-maker.  Ads often depicted women as subservient to a more dominant male figure.  The 1960s and 70s are marked with imagery reflecting social movements, ideas of ‘cool,’ and sexuality.  Marlboro ads famously conveyed a sense of the American ‘cool’ and masculinity.  Women had their own Virginia Slims campaign, which depicted the beginning of the gender equality movement; women in these ads were portrayed as confident, powerful players in society.  And the 1980s and 90s are marked by overt diversity, and sometimes rule-bending and controversial advertising.  Benetton’s signature multi-racial advertising became a “politically-correct cliché” and the new standard in photography-based advertising (Edwards 2013).  The waif-like, androgynous and somber models depicted in Calvin Klein’s campaigns resulted in initial backlash, yet represented a new norm in many ways.  What was consistent throughout the entire 20th century print advertising history was the focus on the brand; the logo or product was front and center, meant to be ingrained in the minds of consumers.

Benetton 1990s (

Calvin Klein 1990s (

Digital Age: What Has Changed?

In these point and click atmospheres, it takes an eye-catching image to “stand out and force its way into the consciousness of consumers…it takes a photograph that’s creative, memorable and unmissable” (Chapnick 2009).

Oreo 2013 (source: International Business Times)

Oreo 2013 (International Business Times)

The digital age or more specifically, the social-media age, brought about major shifts for photography.  First, photographers were given a sharing platform that enabled quicker and greater dissemination – versus the traditional art gallery or exhibit forum.  Content via the Internet can reach a larger audience, yet can be appropriated and copied for unintended purposes.  From a marketing standpoint, the sharing network offers great benefits.  While there can be costs involved in online advertising, the sharing and ‘viral’ potential can make it much more cost effective.  Some of the most successful advertising campaigns have cost very little, for example the Oreo ad posted on Facebook and Twitter during the 2013 Super Bowl blackout incident – it was regarded much higher than the commercials that aired for millions of dollars (Smith 2013).  The success of this ad was due to its timeliness afforded by social media channels and the flexibility and cleverness of ad executives.  What the digital age has produced is a sense of immediacy to the photographic image that did not previously exist (Heywood 2012).

Second, the barrier to entry to photography was lowered by the advent of digital cameras and smart phones.  Photography as an art form was discredited as “middle-brow” by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, following the commercial success of portable cameras in the 1950′s and 60′s and subsequent adoption by middle-class families as a means to document domestic events (Bourdieu 1990).  In today’s digital world, Bourdieu may have gone even further to classify photography as ‘low-brow.’  Smart phones have created a culture that is consumed with the ritualization of taking pictures and is thus over-saturated with ‘pics’ that are posted to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram – a medium solely devoted to the photographic image.  The notion of distinguishing photography from ‘taking pictures’ has become ever so critical in the art world (Irvine 2012).  On the flip-side, the more standard or compatible photography becomes in the common person’s everyday life, the more appealing it becomes (Sarvas 2011).  The challenge marketers face is creating photographic imagery that is accessible, yet stands out for its higher artistic value.

Lastly, attention spans have been reduced due to the new digital mediums and technological viewing capabilities.  Today, audiences can skip through commercials using services like onDemand and TiVo.  They are also viewing more than one medium at once, flipping between television and smart phone.  For example, over half of the 2013 Superbowl viewing audience intended to use social media while watching the game per a pre-game market research survey.  “This widespread divided attention…makes you wonder which screen is the first and which is the second” (Bough 2013).  Additionally, magazine and newspaper sales have drastically declined.  The content is now more often viewed online, thus decreasing the reach of the print ad format, and transferring importance to ad banners, pop-ups, hover ads, etc.  In these point and click atmospheres, it takes an eye-catching image to “stand out and force its way into the consciousness of consumers…it takes a photograph that’s creative, memorable and unmissable” (Chapnick 2009).  And while marketers will carefully craft the written content of their ads, it is the image that creates the first and long-lasting impression.

Case Study: Social Media & Instagram-Inspired

“The point is to manufacture glamour that doesn’t seem manufactured” (Rosman 2012).

Hudson Jeans 2013 (

Hudson Jeans 2013 (

Social media has changed the entire landscape of advertising, but particularly in regard to photography-based ads, where a new aesthetic has emerged.  People are spending less time viewing the traditional, highly-produced media forms – television, magazines, etc., and spend more time on smart phones and social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram.  Advertising has shifted to reflect what consumers are used to seeing, ‘liking’ and sharing.  “User-generated content – the feel and the actual images – is very intimate, and that visual language is very familiar to people…consumers ‘like’ your ad, share it with friends, and soon it has a life of its own, bouncing around social-media sites at no extra cost” (Rosman 2012).  It is almost a visual trick that advertisers play to blend in their ads with viewers social media streams, making them pay attention and not realize they are looking at an ad.  These ads appear more organic, authentic, and less sales or spam-like.  Just like the original intention of photography-based advertising, people are moved by the ‘real’ thing – they do not want to be overtly sold (Rosman 2012).  But concurrently, the successful ads stand out in a creative ways.

Facebook 2014 (source:

Facebook 2014 (

Facebook’s 2014 ad campaign is, appropriately, almost entirely founded on social media photographic principles, but with added creativity and artistry.  These ads are geared towards existing users, displayed on their feeds, with the assumed intention of enhancing Facebook’s reputation and/or getting users to more frequently and passionately use Facebook.  In the “reunion tour” ad shown here, the creators have leveraged symbols of the concert or festival culture.  The campaign was timely coinciding with the 2014 Coachella Festival.  Ads historically draw heavily on cultural symbols or events, especially those whose meanings are shared among mainstream society (O’Barr 2006).  The image is greatly inspired by the common festival-goers Instagram photos – the haze, the sunlight, the youthful crowd – are all symbolic of a concert.  Comments on the ad posting even claim that the photo was taken at Coachella.  This ad blends right into a person’s Facebook feed which makes him/her pay attention, as if it is a friend’s post.  When an ad overtly looks and feels like an ad, viewers may avoid the image or create a negative connotation that the company is spamming them.  With witty, meaningful written content, the ad ‘closes the deal’ as creative and the user generates a positive impression of the company.  That impression is often intended to have a sense of ‘cool’ particularly among the millennial demographic, but also aims to cross generational gaps to appeal to the mainstream.

Taco Bell 2013 (

Taco Bell 2013 (

Many ads have not only appropriated the look and feel of Instagram filters, but also mirror the user-generated content that is captured beneath those filters.  Taco Bell has had much success with its social media campaigns, generating buzz and ‘hipster’ appeal among the millennial demographic.  In the example shown here which was supporting a new product launch, the ad incorporates several classic Instagram photo features: food, fashionably painted nails, and an enticing caption.  It is also captured in a close-up shot, which the Instagram platform is intended for; it is not meant for panoramic views or large group photos – it is meant to capture the little details and highlights of a users everyday life.  In the digital age the camera now acts as a “witness to the mundane” but also as a tool for social interaction and bonding (Heywood 2012).  A photo of one eating a taco, with freshly painted nails, is presented as a means of attainable relation – i.e. look what I’m doing – who else is doing this?  In the Hudson Jeans 2013 ad campaign shown above, the creators specifically wanted the ads to look like a series of Instagram shots; the above image is a combined summary of the entire campaign that Hudson ran as a separate ad.  The photos have the tones, bordering, backdrops/settings, and artistic quality that are common of Instagram shots.

Case Study: Intimacy & Voyeurism

“The American Apparel advertising campaign has become…synonymous with our brand name…our un-airbrushed aesthetic [was introduced] more than a decade ago” (American Apparel 2014).

Pedigree 2013 (

Pedigree 2013 (

As an extension of the quest for the ‘real’, another current theme in photography-based advertising is a heightened sense of intimacy and voyeurism.  This culture has existed throughout time, but has become more prevalent in the digital age with the advent of social media that allows people to expose themselves via profiles, status updates, photos, videos, etc.  Additionally, pop culture heavily subsists on the reality television and tabloid culture that is propagated by the various online social media channels.  This development has greatly fed into an innate guilty pleasure of voyeurism that exists in almost every human.  What the digital age has produced is a culture that is eager for more realness, more intimacy, and more exposure into the daily lives of friends, acquaintances or even strangers.

American Apparel 2013 (

American Apparel 2013 (

American Apparel ads are famously, and to some infamously, known for their raw, un-airbrushed aesthetic.  Models are relatively ‘average’ as compared to the typical look, size and style of ones seen in traditional fashion ads.  One photographer known as a pioneer in ‘street-style’ photography says this method reflects a “heightened version of real life,” and the typical portrayal of a glamorized, waif-like teenage model “is not reality, [which] creates a barrier between the consumer and the brand” (Rosman 2012).  The models seemingly wear little to no make-up, and are casually, yet provocatively dressed.  They are situated in low-key, no-frills environments that make the viewers feel as though they getting a glimpse of the model in his/her natural habitat.  Sex appeal is a primary intention for the American Apparel brand, as established with the rawness of the photos, models in minimal clothing and suggestive poses, and an overall voyeuristic vibe.  Additionally, the ads have appropriated a vintage 1970s aura via muted, matte and sepia tones, which suits the throw-back styled clothing.

McDonalds 2010 (

McDonalds 2010 (

Ads can portray a sense of intimacy without being overly raw or exploiting sexuality.  The McDonalds and Pedigree ads exemplified here bring the viewer into a space that is intimate through varying visual cues.  McDonalds is playing off of a common cultural practice of utilizing or relying on public wifi, often while alone, in a business establishment.  The viewer of the ad can relate to the image with just a glimpse of the models hands and forearms.  A feeling of isolation, yet satisfaction is portrayed; the viewer has been in this situation and can feel what is being expressed.  Pedigree pulls on the viewers’ heart strings a bit by making a relatable, intimate scenario.  The viewer is looking in, voyeuristically, on a situation where he/she may have been before – at the beach with a dog – and may have even documented it via a smart phone.  The image is highly realistic and the sentiment is highly emotional.  The tone and split screen aesthetic are also replicable via smart phone applications and present an additional layer of realism.  With this realism, the objective of the ad is more easily accomplished – viewers can quickly transfer meaning from the ad onto the product (Williamson 1978).

Case Study: Fantasy & Romance

“Our customer is downtown and uptown…she is into reality, but romance too,” designer Rebecca Minkoff (Rosman 2012).

Mulberry 2011 (source:

Mulberry 2011 (

One theme of digital age advertising is the remixing of real with the surreal – which is appropriated from pre-digital age themes.  The appeal of the glossy, glamorized fantasy is consistent throughout all generations: “advertising…is the ideology and mythology of consumption.  The myth of advertising tells heroic commodities and fabulous lives enhanced and fulfilled through purchase and consumption” (O’Barr 2006).  Ideas of fantasy, romance and whimsy are typically geared towards the female consumer who have been indoctrinated with a fairy tale princess mentality through all art and media forms.  However, one difference in the post-digital age is the advancement of photoshop technologies that enable photography to be blended seamlessly or more creatively with fabricated imagery.  Another difference is that advertisements are reflective of contemporary cultures obsession with fantasy, mirroring popular television and film – Twilight and Game of Thrones as current examples.  These ads are telling a story and seamlessly incorporate the product or service to where the advertised good “drops into the background while highly abstract connections are made between the models, a lifestyle and the brand” (Williamson 1978).

Mulberry 2012 (source:

Mulberry 2012 (

The fashion company Mulberry and its ad campaigns over the past five years best exemplify and execute the fantasy theme with digital age enhancements.  The ads exude a high-class, yet modern appeal with the younger models in traditional, yet fresh and brightly colored ensembles.  The ads would be elitist, yet are ironically whimsical with the photo-shopped imagery fitted in not-to-scale.  There is a soft, romanticized re-touching – almost an aura exuding from the images.  And the models expressions connote a naivety and rawness – a childlike glow looking to explore their surroundings.  There are often two models in the ads – both female – portraying a playful, companionship.  Many of the themes are indirectly appropriated from Alice in Wonderland with dream-like, surreal playgrounds of fashion, animals, and wilderness.  The 2012 campaign directly appropriates Where the Wild Things Are, leveraging nostalgia in the target female millennial demographic.

Disney 2014 (

Disney 2014 (

Annie Leibovitz’s ad campaign for Disney is another clear-cut example of advertising appealing to society’s obsession with fantasy, as well as celebrity culture – which can also be related back to fantasy.  In this campaign Leibovitz appropriates various Disney films and supplants popular celebrities as the main characters; actress Jessica Chastain is portrayed as a character from the Disney film Brave in the example shown here.  Through photography and photoshop, Leibovitz creates imagery that is both real and surreal.  The viewer sees the celebrity as a real person, yet understands the background imagery is fabricated with a painting-like scenery.  This juxtaposition presents an unattainable, yet somewhat attainable feeling that Disney wants to convey via its entertainment products and services.


“An ad must always be understood to tell a positive, beneficial story about the advertised product…Within these bounds, images are manipulated for maximum positivity” (O’Barr 2006).

Advertising adapts to the given time period and cultural values, while holding true to the underlying consumer psychology principles and intended positive effects.  As technology advances, so do cultural values and consumer behavior.  Photography in today’s advertising reflects a digital age that has created a visual culture, craving immediacy, authenticity, and allure.  Glamour and beauty are still put on a pedestal, but advertisers are increasingly remixing styles and themes to create a more organic vibe.  So while “strawberries are made to look fresher and sweeter, models younger and more attractive, water bluer, and clouds whiter” (O’Barr 2006), photographic situations, settings, and styles are often portrayed to be more relatable and attainable.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, advertising may appeal to a culture wanting fantasy and romance – themes that have been enhanced in the digital age with photoshop and creative artistry.  Where advertisers do not want to fall is in the middle – an unrelatable or uninspiring state – particularly in today’s over-saturated digital space.  The goal is to be attainable and recognizable, or so highly creative and imaginative that there is no way the audience can scroll by without a second glance.


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