Stock photography is really a staple of the marketing business. We have all used it. Myself and the other Savvy Sisters include a stock photo in pretty much everyone of our posts as a way to add some visual appeal and pictorial reference to our subject matter.
Jon Stewart recently did a bit on the Daily show about the launch of Newt Gingrich’s www.newtexplore2012.com website chastising the use of stock photos to make Newt’s supporters look more multi-cultural and diverse than perhaps they are in actuality. Gingrich’s banner on the front page of the site is a stock photo from Getty Images. It started me thinking. Are there some ethical standards and practical pitfalls in the use of stock photography and what are our responsibilities as marketers to adhere to those standards?
I started by reading through the Getty Images license agreement. From what I could tell once you pay the license and royalty fees you “own” the right to use the image but you still must give credit notation to Getty, the photographer and the collection. Also you have non-exclusive rights to the image. Which means if you buy the image to advertise or promote your product then you can’t stop a competitor other third party from doing the exact same thing. Additionally if you fail to give credit notation you can be charged 100% of the license fee for failure to do so. This is very different from my copy writing life where byline / credit is rarely if ever given so I think this is a distinction that we all need to consider and remember!
There are also three types of stock photos I ran across in my research:
- Rights Managed – restrictions on usage, duration, size and geography of use
- Royalty Free – unrestricted for unlimited use by one purchaser
- Editorial – restrictions similar to Rights Managed but also must be used in a newsworthy or editorial way related to the subject.
I am not going to attempt to elaborate more since each stock photography provider I looked at had slightly different variations to their rules. Make sure you know what the rules are for the stock house you are purchasing from. I also found this article that is a primer for stock photography buyers that I think is quite informative.
Now the ethics question. Is it ethical to show a bunch of smiley happy people in your marketing materials even though the photographs or the people were taken perhaps months or years before your product existed and have never tried it? This is one of those gray areas that needs to be treaded lightly. I believe a good marketer can use stock photography responsibly without implying those are actual customers. If you show a picture of a women with a briefcase and say “4 out of 5 top executives use our service”. What you can’t ethically say is “Jane Doe uses our service and thinks it is the best thing since sliced bread.” Unless the photo is really of Jane Doe and you have her permission to quote her.
Finally the overuse of stock photography can make your work look generic and unremarkable which even if you are ethical and license it appropriately isn’t doing you any service. I found a couple of good articles while reading up that I think cover this side of things well so I highly recommend:
Stop Using Stock Photography Cliches by Paul Boag
10 Pitfalls to Avoid When Using Stock Photography by Joshua Johnson
About the Author: Heather has spent the past 15 years advocating for the customer perspective in her approach to software development and product marketing. Her penchant for collaboration is what drew her to the Savvy B2B team. Read more of Heather's posts here or contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.