Is Stock Photography a Generic Prescription?

We’ve all seen them. The happy young couple watching their child frolic in a park. A group of women laughing at lunch. Two businessmen shaking hands in a conference room. A group of twentysomethings discussing something earnestly in an officey environment. Pointing at a monitor. Or high-fiving in a hallway.

Hello, and welcome to the world of stock photography. Yes, it’s 2016, and we’re still seeing model-ly type people doing fake-ish looking things in stagy scenarios. And nowhere are these pretendy posed pictures more prevalent than in healthcare marketing. From the waiting room magazine to the Pinterest page on your smartphone, you don’t have to look hard to find a doctor holding the hand of a grateful soccer mom. Or a friendly grandpa.

Every day, we’re bombarded with generic content. As a result, we’re more attuned and more discerning. And if an image seems insincere, imitated, simulated, phony, false, forged, faux or otherwise fake, we disengage and move on. And believe it or not, this indifference is the best-case scenario. Because if the viewer perceives the offending image as farcical, stilted, preposterous, ridiculous, absurd or otherwise less than credible, that negative perception rubs off on the brand it represents.

Alright, this may seem like a lot to heap on the shoulders of a seemingly harmless stock photo. But in today’s healthcare marketing environment, trust is harder to come by than ever before. And the scrutiny being focused on healthcare providers, insurance companies and hospital networks means that brands shouldn’t always rely on a stock solution. Because that royalty-free image of a smiling woman on a hospital’s website page may end up in a competitor’s brochure. Or worse, on a bus shelter for a completely unrelated product or service. And whatever credibility was established is quickly eroded.

In a perfect world, we would always have the time and money to create custom photography or illustrations that best serve our creative concept. The benefits are multifold. The client gains imagery that is specific and relevant to their particular brand. This eliminates the risk of “double exposure” – the same image showing up in two different mediums for two different clients. Plus, custom imagery has been created to address the specific needs of specific mediums: print, digital, out-of-home, etc. This eliminates the need to alter a stock photo to fit a horizontal banner or a vertical page – all that cropping and cloning that burns hours and budgets. Custom imagery also prevents the “reverse-engineering” syndrome that occurs when a creative concept has to be altered to fit the stock photograph that has been selected. (This is known as “the tail wagging the dog.”)

In the many healthcare advertising campaigns we’ve developed, we’ve always strived to create unique imagery – whether it be shooting Danica Patrick on Charlotte Motor Speedway for Edward-Elmhurst Health, capturing the personal side of patient stories for UCSF Health, or creating animated videos touting Aramark’s unique hospital scrub management system.

As a seasoned creative with extensive experience in retail advertising, I know there are those rare times when a stock shot perfectly captures the essence of a concept. But more often than not, the realities of budget and timing often make stock photography seem like a simple, safe, cost-effective “go-to.” Especially when it comes to marketing within today’s healthcare ecosystem. But what may seem like a cost-saving solution can end up making a brand less relevant and more invisible. Or worse – it could end up being the subject of a snarky internet “meme.” (This is the kind of viral popularity no one wants.)

Something to think about the next time someone suggests “Well, maybe we can just use stock.”

Cameron Young

Creative Director