A good word is worth 1,000 pictures . . . and hard to find


Marketers can improve their results and reduce costs by examining the value of accepted cliches.


This painting by artist Stephen Powers, aka ESPO the notorious graffiti master, headlined (literally) a solo exhibit at New York's Joshua Liner Gallery. Was it mere coincidence that Powers' show concluded on September 29, the day I began my effort to contradict one of recent history's most ubiquitous statements and accepted truisms?

Like everyone alive in America today, I grew up captivated by photos, moving pictures and special effects. I never questioned the saying:

“A picture is worth 1,000 words.”

Yet, companies worldwide have wasted billions of marketing and advertising dollars because their decision makers (along with everyone else) were unconsciously influenced by this commonly accepted assumption. Join my inquest into the origins and credibility of this axiom. You may improve the way you advertise and communicate.

Common sense is not common; conventional wisdom is inane

Who said a picture is worth 1,000 words? What makes a picture worth 1,000 words? To whom is it worth 1,000 words? Are all pictures worth 1,000 words or are some worth 2,000 and others only 500?

According to the Yale Book of Quotations and most other sources, the quote was born in 1921 when Printer’s Ink publisher Frederick Barnard used it — in an article about effectiveness of graphics in advertising — and added: “so said a famous Japanese philosopher and he was right.” On July 26, 1925, the Washington Post validated Barnard’s myth: “‘The picture is worth ten thousand words.’ So says an old Chinese proverb.” Get the picture? An ad industry mouthpiece invented and falsely attributed a notion. The mainstream press exaggerated and repeated it . . . and falsely attributed the original phony attribution. Then, it went viral.


Behind this Chinese proverb (or was it Japanese) you will find the ancient wisdom of P.T. Barnum.

The method in their badness

Viola! Anointed with the ancient and distant credentials of Asian wisdom (Chinese or Japanese; same difference to hucksters in those days) this value proposition put forth by marketing people has been accepted as true for almost 90 years.

Not so coincidentally, the print process rotogravure was introduced in 1911 which enabled mass production of high quality photography and graphics. From that point through the 1930s, audiences for picture magazines of all kinds grew as quickly as eye balls on the World Wide Web from 1995 through the present. Then, television arrived.

I have time to ponder, honchos don’t

Business leaders do not have time to ponder whether strong images invoke the emotions of customers better and faster than language. But, they do sit in presentations by marketing gurus, media mavens and advertising agencies. Influenced by this easy-to-believe truism, countless honchos throw monstrous budgets on image dominated promotions.

The purpose of marketing communication is to connect products emotionally with buyers and MOST IMPORTANTLY leverage that connection to motivate actions that benefit the company’s bottom line. What are the most effective ways to do that? Consider the following Q&A.

Can words and pictures (music too) combine to meet that goal? YES!

Can words alone achieve that goal? YES!

Can pictures alone make that goal? NO!

Whether beautiful, grotesque or heart wrenching, strong images demand attention. But, only words (written or spoken) can tell you what the story in the picture means to you and your wallet. You can sell without pictures, but you can’t sell without words.

A conspiracy or just the path of least resistance?

If I were a conspiracy nut, I would be wonderfully obsessed identifying the sinister forces at work. But, I am not. Life is complicated. But, the next time you sit through a presentation by an agency, digital evangelist, branding guru or the like, consider that:

  • Memorable, meaningful actionable word messages are much more difficult to create, yet cost less to the client and generate less revenue for the agency than dramatic display ads, TV spots and other audio-visual platforms.
  • Marketers often depend on elaborate, high-quality images and video productions to mask that they are unable to explain the value/benefit of the product in a clear, compelling way.
  • The original and delightful combination of sounds, graphics, images, celebrities and other effects may grab your attention and make people aware of your brand, but does little to trigger a buying response.

The relative (perhaps competing) roles of emotion and reason in buying processes vary from product to product, industry to industry and company to company. If your organization needs to carefully plan and spend marketing resources so that every dollar invested returns the most revenue, a few good words may be worth far more than 1,000 pictures.

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