The Tyranny of Image

Glimpses of Britain and USA history

Now the language of images is everywhere. Everywhere it has displaced the language of ideals. If the rich “image” will elect a President or sell an automobile, a religion, a cigarette, or a suit of clothes, why can it not make America herself-or the American Way of Life-a salable commodity all over the earth? In discussing ourselves, our communities, our corpo­rations, our nation, our leaders, ourselves, we talk the language of images. In the minister’s study and the professor’s seminar room as well as in advertising offices and on street corners.

What the pseudo-event is in the world of fact, the image is in the world of value. The image is a pseudo-ideal. As we shall see, it is synthetic, believ­able, vivid, simplified, and ambiguous.

(1)      An image is synthetic. It is planned, created especially to serve a purpose, to make a certain kind of impression.

Older and more obvious illustrations are the trademark and the brand name, both of which have become increasingly important in this century. A trademark (intended to become a standard for judging all products of a certain kind) is a legally protected set of letters, a picture, or a design, iden­tifying a particular product. Because trademarks and many of the other images flooding our experiences are, like most pseudoevents, expensive to produce, someone always has an interest in dissemination, reenforcing, and exploiting them. Unlike other standards, they can be owned. To keep them legally valid as trademarks, the owner must constantly reassert his ownership.

(2)      An image is believable. It serves no purpose if people do not believe it. In their own minds they must make it stand for the institution or the person imaged. Yet if an image is to be vivid and to succeed popularly in overshadowing its original, it must not outrage the ordinary rules of com­mon sense. The most effective images are usually those which have been especially doctored for believability. One of the best paths to believability is understatement. A prudent advertiser or master of public relations takes advantage of the increasingly reckless use of superlatives to make his own hyperbole seem a conservative truth.

(3)      An image is passive. The producer of the image is expected to fit into the image. In the beginning the image is a likeness of the corporation; finally the corporation becomes a likeness of the image.

An image is the kind of ideal which becomes real only when it has become public.

Because an image is essentially passive, it need have very little to do with the activities of the corporation itself. In old-fashioned language, im­age building is the building of reputations, not of characters.

Amidst lamentation of the rise of conformity in American life, it has seldom been noticed that to “conform” now commonly means to fit into an image.

We have become thoroughly accustomed to the use of images as invi­tations to behaviour. Products have become props for images into which the seller confidently assumes we will try to fit ourselves.

(4)      An image is vivid and concrete. It often serves its purpose best by appealing to the senses. “The Skin You Love to Touch”. The Old Dutch Cleanser girl with upraised stick (“Chases Dirt”). The bearded cough-drop Smith Brothers. The Arrow Collar Man. “Man of Distinction”. The Im­age is limited. It must be more graspable than any specific list of objectives. It is not enough if the product, the man, or the institution has many good qualities appropriate to it. One or a few must be selected for vivid portrayal.

(5)      An image is simplified. In order to exclude undesired and undesir­able aspects, an image must be simpler than the object it represents. “This strong, vigorous symbol, with its four sections bordering a square center,” The Chase Manhattan Bank explains, “is indicative of our Bank’s char­acter and diversity.” An effective image has the capacity to become hack­neyed. Yet it loses its imagic power as soon as it passes into the language. Then it has become a word in place of a pseudo-event.

(6)      An image is ambiguous. It floats somewhere between the imagina­tion and the senses, between expectation and reality. In another way, too, it is ambiguous, for it must not offend. It must suit unpredictable future purposes, and unpredicted changes in taste. Many such changes may have taken place before the image can be remade to contain them. It must be a receptacle for the wishes of different people.

Strictly speaking, there is no way to unmask an image. An image, like any other pseudo-event, becomes all the more interesting with our every effort to debunk it. For this reason, some of the most effective advertising nowadays consists of circumstantial descriptions of how the advertising images were contrived, how tests were devised, how trademarks were designed, and how the corporate cosmetics were applied. The stage machinery, the processes of fabricating and projecting the image, fascinate us. We are all interested in watching a skillful feat of magic; we are still inore interested in looking behind the scenes and seeing precisely how it was made to seem that the lady was sawed in half. The everyday images which flood our experience have this advantage over the tricks of magic: even after we have been taken behind the scenes, we can still enjoy the pleasures of deception.

From: The Image or What Happened to the Amer­ican Dream by D. J. Boorstin