Show vs. Tell

By John Pellegrini

There is a common saying among advertising people, especially those who deal in print and television that “Show beats Tell.” This means that visual impact is far more important than a description. I’ve heard numerous advertising people quote this “fact.” I’ve read numerous books that quote it. I’ve seen it on many agency Web sites. “Show” beats “Tell”—show the picture, show the product, show the brand. That’s what’s important in advertising, they say. My take on that perspective is, phooey. Without Tell, Show is almost worthless.

Here is the problem: people are mistaking the word tell to mean, speak. This is because they’re remembering back when they were in kindergarten. Show and Tell made some children uncomfortable because having to stand up in front of a class is scary for many kids. So, it’s better to just shut up and show the pictures. The problem with this logic is that it assumes that none of us are any smarter than we were in kindergarten. None of us have learned anything since kindergarten. Wrong! The assumption is totally invalid.

The assumption is based on incorrect experience. Tell doesn’t have anything to do with the idea that you’re a child standing in front of a kindergarten class. In this case, tell does not mean speak! Tell means “describe.” The phrase "Show and Tell” is a shortened way of saying “Show it to us and Tell us about it.” “Tell us about it” means “describe it to us.” Kindergarteners have an easier time understanding the phrase “tell us about it” than they do with the phrase, “describe it to us.” However, remember that tell or describe is an action, while speak is one of many tools or methods that are used to describe what we are being shown. “Show and Tell” is used in school because kindergarteners have not yet learned how to write descriptions.

Descriptions (tell) are what you need in order to explain why someone should be interested in the product you are showing. Without descriptions, you offer no needs. Without descriptions, you offer no proof. Without descriptions, you have no persuasion. Without descriptions, you have no difference or loyalty between similar products or brands. For example, if all you did was show someone AT&T and MCI, you would show that person two identical looking long distance phone companies. That’s all you get with Show. Tell is where you describe the differences between the two similar companies so that people can choose what’s best for them. That’s what advertising is all about… “Tell” the difference and the benefits.

More examples: everyone loved the look of the Plymouth Prowler. Yet, it sold poorly. Why? Because the reviews described the car as all looks—zero performance. The car had all the driving excitement of a houseboat. People read the reviews and believed them, and the cool looking Plymouth Prowler was the last gasp of a now dead brand. I don’t have the numbers, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Prowler was one of the least test-driven cars of the last 20 years. Nobody I know was interested in it past the initial excitement of how it looked. However, when people read the descriptions from the reviewers, they just didn’t even consider the car worth looking at further. If looks were everything, the Pontiac Aztec would be dead, too. Let’s face it; the Aztec is quite possibly the ugliest car Detroit has produced since the Edsel. But the descriptions from the reviewers say the car performs great, so it survives.

Pictures alone do not compel. You have to add story to what you see in order to make other people interested. Think of any famous picture you can remember. Without the story behind the picture, most of them are subject to totally different interpretation. Let me demonstrate this for you. Remember that famous sad picture from the Viet Nam war with the little naked girl screaming and running down the road because her town had just been napalmed and her clothing had caught fire? Did the picture tell you any of that sad story? No. The story that accompanied the picture is what made the picture memorable and compelling. The picture confirmed the story, but trust me when I tell you that if your local newspaper had run the picture by itself without any description of what it was, there would have been howls of protest from people about the paper printing pictures of crying naked children. No one would have understood why that picture was so important and tragic.

Many years ago, a famous story says, a first time visitor to the Vatican looked up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and said, “what is all that?” He was told it was a painting of the Creation. “You should take it off; it ruins the ceiling,” was his reply. Was he blasphemous? You might think so. But the visitor was a Buddhist Monk who did not know anything about the Old Testament or the story of the Creation. From the Buddhist perspective, human portraiture is not as important as nature, so he didn’t see anything worthwhile in the painting. The fact that the paintings represent the story of the Creation is what makes the Sistine Chapel ceiling so important.

Yes, there are some paintings and pictures that need no story to explain them. But for every “Mona Lisa” or “Starry Night,” there are perhaps billions of pictures and paintings that are worthless without the story behind them. The statue of David is an excellent sculpture of a nude man, but it is the fact that it’s a representation of the most important King of Israel that makes it vital. Without that piece of Tell, it’s not nearly as compelling. Here’s another way of thinking about it: do you care about pictures from my vacation? Of course not. They only become interesting when I tell you what is going on in each picture. Answer this honestly: when was the last time you saw an advertisement that had just a picture with no further explanation, caption, story, headline, or even a logo? Those items are all part of the Tell process, not the Show process.

Why are there no pictures in novels? Why have there never been any pictures in novels? Why has no one ever once considered that pictures would be an asset to novel writing? Because novel writers and publishers know the secret: pictures disappoint readers! When you read a novel, you picture the scene inside your head without any visual aid whatsoever. This is also why so many movies based on popular novels disappoint people who’ve read the original story. The pictures in the movie are seldom as good or as interesting as the pictures we imagined when we first read the descriptions in the book. The movie industry, of course, prefers you to believe that it was the editing of the story that caused your disappointment, largely because they don’t want to admit that their picture movies aren’t as good as your imagination. If people believed that to be true, then most of us wouldn’t bother with the movies any more. But, if the pictures and movies are based on something we haven’t previously read, then there’s a better chance of not disappointing. We have nothing to compare the images with. However, understand this well: no amount of amazing photography, incredible effects, or famous-face actors can make up for a lousy story. Hollywood proves this fact almost every year.

George Lucas didn’t have nor need pictures to inspire him to create Star Wars. There weren’t any pictures available of the Star Wars universe until he imagined them. People don’t need pictures to imagine something. The brain rejects more often than not pictures that try to change reality because we automatically understand that what the picture is showing us is impossible, no matter how well the digital graphics portray the subject. But the mind is more willing to be persuaded by a description without pictures because all we have to go on is the authority of the storyteller. If we see something that is impossible, we can reject it immediately, but if we are told about something impossible without pictures, we accept the possibility that it might be true. This is why science fiction stories are always better without pictures. Yes, Star Wars presented impossible realities in a believable picture, but who has the kind of advertising budget that could match the budget George Lucas has to spend to make it acceptable to the brain? This is why radio is so much more effective than television—descriptions of the impossible without pictures are easier for the mind to accept. If scientists were forced only to using designs of space ships that could currently be pictured, we would have never gotten off the ground, much less made it to the moon or designed a space shuttle.

Here’s another description to test you: you’re in a railroad tunnel. It’s about a mile in length. Your job is to walk the length of the tunnel and inspect everything. Inspect the walls and the ceiling of the tunnel, inspect the tracks, and inspect the rail bed the tracks are laid on. In the distance, you hear a train…

If you’re like most people you’ve pictured a dusty old tunnel hewn from the side of a mountain and the train is likely to be a steam engine locomotive or a diesel freight train. A picture of a modern Amtrak turbine diesel inside a well-lit urban tunnel under Union Station or Penn Station doesn’t do it for you, does it? Why not? It’s a picture of a train, and most certainly a tunnel, and workmen walk those tunnels every day to inspect them. But it’s not what your imagination told you it was supposed to look like. That’s why sometimes a picture ruins the effect of an advertisement, especially if the description that accompanies it doesn’t work well with the image.

The most recent example of this is the Benson and Hedges advertisement that had a picture of people smoking on the wing of a plane at cruise altitude. The tobacco company was trying to convey the idea that people like their cigarettes so much that they are willing to smoke under any adverse conditions. The ad backfired, and wound up offending both smokers and nonsmokers alike. I can’t quote chapter and verse from the ‘Advertising Bible’ or whatever it’s called, but I do know one thing to be true: an ad that offends both sides of an issue isn’t going to be effective. That picture would have been better had the advertising company sold it to an airline, with the caption, “You told us at Crash Airlines what to do with those annoying smokers, and we listened.” Sure, you’ll still offend the smokers, but the nonsmokers would love it, thus overcoming the problem of offending both sides. But make no mistake; the picture of people smoking on the wing of the plane meant something entirely different without the caption description. If the picture had run by itself without any description, you would have thought it was an anti-smoking ad, wouldn’t you? That’s why the ad offended smokers, they thought it was another example of smokers being portrayed as outcasts, and thanks to Benson and Hedges' ignorance of the issue, they were right.

A picture is just a picture, and you’re stuck with the image good or bad. But a description can inspire emotions beyond the visual to a time and place near or far, in the past or in the future, on this world or elsewhere in the cosmos. Descriptions and stories are why we remember pictures. No one can treasure a picture without a story to go with it. Yes, there are pictures that don’t require stories, but they’re seldom found in advertising. You will seldom find a picture that not only has an immediately understandable story, plus sells the client brand, product, or service, without any description included. In fact, I can’t recall a single picture advertisement that I’ve ever seen that didn’t have some kind of description copy or caption headline that ran with it. I seriously doubt if other people could. Perhaps advertising executives could, but that’s because they remember their own work far better than the general public does. And let’s never forget that it’s the General Public who we’re supposed to be pleasing, not other advertising executives.

Pictures force you to deal with reality and only reality. Descriptions allow you to leave reality behind and create a better reality, real or imagined. Truthfully, if everyone dealt only with reality, we wouldn’t need advertising at all! We also wouldn’t have much choice or fun with anything, either. The purpose of advertising is to create a better reality, a better perception of a client, brand, product, or service. Pictures alone cannot perform that task.

The imagination is far greater than any picture you can show it. That’s why radio’s “Theater of the Mind” is still so vital. That’s why storytelling is so important to advertising, more so than any other creative concept. People want their imaginations to be stimulated so they can leave “reality” behind. Most people associate reality with “average,” “dreary,” and “boring.” By stimulating the imagination, you can overcome those problems with reality. The only way to achieve this is through description…or Tell. Connect with the customer’s imagination, and you connect to an emotional loyalty that goes beyond what you can only picture, what you can only Show. Description, or Tell, is the most important part of advertising, and it’s the most important part of “Show and Tell.” To paraphrase the Bard himself, the Play’s the thing… and the Story is the Play. Without a Story there can be no Play. Without the Story, a picture is worthless.

The truth is, Tell kick’s Show’s butt.

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