Words or Pictures?


Excited by this new competition by CBS Outdoor, celebrating 150 years of poster advertising. There are two posters, one with seventy-five straplines, the other with seventy-five image thumbnails, and you have to identify as many brands as you can.
I am interested in this for two reasons. Firstly, it’s a simple way to test whether words or pictures work better for recall in advertising, and second it’s a good way to surreptitiously profile your staff.


There is an online version you can enter at 150brands.co.uk, but everyone would cheat, so full exam conditions were employed. Seven minutes alone on each poster, no conferring. Followed by five minutes as a team.


First, the the results of the solo round, in descending order:


A pretty awful performance all round, with entries hovering around the 30% mark. I was also hoping for a big differential between the words and picture rounds, enabling me to write something definitive about the power of image over copy, or vice versa.
But averaged over our huge survey group, there is only a single point between them.

Now on to the group stage:


A much more pleasing score, yielding a total of 114 points. 76% = A*. Says a lot for teamwork. (Can you split an A four ways? Isn’t that just a D each?) However, a similar 50/50 outcome in the words v. pictures debate. I fear the results of this survey will not be cited in the salary negotiations of either art directors OR copywriters of the future.

Can we learn anything from the individual entries? Ed is our overall victor, with 54 out of a possible 150 points, and a reasonable effort in the picture round, although given his time spent in advertising we were expecting more. Applause withheld.


Dan’s entry might have been stronger if he hadn’t wasted four of the seven available minutes slavishly writing out the numbers 1 to 150. Very poor exam technique. Strong on leisure brands, (alcohol, computer games, condoms).


Tom’s technique is better, and surprisingly rogue for someone normally so controlled. Dispensing with the A4 provided, he writes directly on the question paper, forming a mind map that mimics the original poster. His brilliance yields a score of 17 (out of a possible 75).

Lexi puts in a solid mid table performance, and would have done a LOT better if he wasn’t burdened with invigilating the exam whilst also taking part. Spotting campaigns by Nike, Audi, Apple and BMW, his brand profile is clearly ‘aspirational’.

Are there any serious conclusions to be drawn from this exercise? As a test it has it’s flaws. While you receive entire straplines on one poster, you only get thumbnails of an image on the other, and somebody has made an editorial decision in the cropping of that thumbnail. So the odds should be loaded quite heavily in favour of the strapline.
But they aren’t. It is surprising how little pictorial information is required for the viewer to identify a brand. So…


… Pictures are usually easier.


Colours matter.


And jingles are as pervasive as ever, (sorry for ruining your afternoon).