Want your photo to compel onlookers to find out “the rest of the story”? Capture a scene that’s out of balance.

Whatever scene you capture, it’ll be the imbalance — the conflict between incognruence elements — that creates story appeal and adds intrigue to your photo.


When everything fits, we have no need to wonder at any kind of explanatory backstory. But when we experience the extraoardinary, not only do we pay attention, but we have a built-in need to understand the cause and meaning of the exception. A need that can’t be triggered absent imbalance or trouble.

If your wife comes home every evening at 5:30 pm, and you see her car roll into the driveway at 5:30, you’re not about to wonder why, are you? There’s no trouble, no curiosity

But if it’s 6:45 pm and she hasn’t come home or e-mailed or called, well… you’ll start to wonder why, right? And in wondering, you’ll start creating scenarios — stories! — to explain the exception to your wife’s ordinary routine. It’s called worry.

So here’s the thing: for any visual scene, there are only 5-6 basic elements at play, and the imbalance usually only occurs between two of them. For instance a person pictured might be attempting to accomplish a goal with an outlandish or rather exceptional tool. Here’s an example of just that kind of imbalance:

Of course, the image is made all the more powerful by the symbolism inherent in the incongruence. But the symbolism only enhances the story appeal inherent in the imbalance, it doesn’t create it.  How do I know, because photos depicting similar action-tool imbalances create similar amounts of story appeal and intrigue:

Again, there is a lot of symbolism in these photos that helps enhance the impact, along with many visually arresting aspects of these photographs that also add to their ability to hold our attention, but these elements are additive and not generative, when it comes to story appeal. They enhance; they do not create intrigue. That’s why the heart of all these civilian-soldier photos lies the same central imbalance — the same engine for story appeal.

Another example is the action-agent imbalance. The things being done by or  to a person are out of balance with the nature of the person pictured.  Famous example:

And here’s a very similar photo showing the same imbalance:

And here’s a very different photo that still manages to capture that same agent-action imbalance:

What’s the point?

According to the late, great David Ogilvy the most effective, hardest working advertising images are those with what he called “Story Appeal.”  Yet no one that I’ve been able to find or have heard of has ever made a methodical study of just what goes into creating story appeal within an image.

But it’s not like it’s an impossible code to crack… and I thinkI can say (without sounding too imodest, I hope) that I have cracked at least a part of that code…

Interested in reading more about this? Let me know either in the comments section or  by e-mail.

P.S. There are other elements and factors that can make an image visually striking and appealing that don’t require imbalance. The extreme beauty on display in an Ansel Adams photo is one example.  But wherever you find story appeal, you’ll also find imbalance.


The Sneetches, by Dr. Seuss

“Now, the Star-Bell Sneetches had bellies with stars.
The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars.
Those stars weren’t so big. They were really so small.
You might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.

But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches
Would brag, “We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches.”
With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they’d snort
“We’ll have nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort!”
And, whenever they met some, when they were out walking,
They’d hike right on past them without even talking…”

The $80 Embroidery, by Lacoste (poem by me)

Now, some polos have emblems and some have none.
And those emblems resemblems all critters under the sun
Moose and Crocs and Sheeps and Ponies,
All set-up to cost you more monies
Why should those emblems matter at all?
Those critters are cute but still rather small…
But they’re sure to win the approval of cronies
So search out those emblems and join all the phonies









P.S. I’m not really calling Polo and Lacoste wearing folks phonies. I’ve got my favorite brands like everyone else. But, hey, it fit in with the rhyme scheme and general theme. Also, if you’re interested in the subject of mimetic desire (and you should be) you can read more about it here and here.

If actions speak louder than words, how effective can a TV ad be if its imagery contradicts its sales message?  Don’t think this happens?  Check out this ad FedEx ran during the Super Bowl no less:

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The message: You shouldn’t judge something based on a name; FedEx ground is faster than you think

The imagery and action: You CAN judge things by their name and the only person who doesn’t question that is the only relatable character in the entire ad.

And this sort of thing happens all the time, usually in the name of humor or entertainment, where the ad ends up with imagery and on-screen action that belies the sales message.

But here’s what it looks like when you do it right — when the imagery perfectly aligns and strengthens the sales message:

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The message: Benihana turns an ordinary dinner out into an EVENT

The imagery: Glamourous people flocking to Benihana to be delighted and thrilled and entertained by the kinetic choreography that is a Japanese steak house.

Hey, if you’re going out for a special dinner, why not make it an event?  Now that’s a near-perfect ad with absolutely perfect imagery.


With the movie version of The Lorax out at theaters near you, I thought you might enjoy this:

So, it’s funny because it’s true, right?

It also highlights the difference between, what a story or movie or ad is superficially about, and what it’s REALLY about. An important nuance that a lot of copywriters screw up.

An ad for a car might be about the car, but it’s REALLY about celebrating the fact that you’ve arrived. And while this ad is for a watch rather than a car, the copywriter definitely got that distinction:

You are standing in the snow, five and one-half half miles above sea level, gazing at a horizon hundreds of miles away. It occurs to you that life here is very simple: you live or you die. No compromises, no whining, no second chances. This is a place constantly ravaged by winds and storm, where every ragged breath is an accomplishment. You stand on the uppermost pinnacle of the earth. This is the mountain they call Everest. Yesterday it was considered unbeatable. But that was yesterday. As Edmund Hillary surveyed the horizon from the peak of Mount Everest, he monitored the time on a wristwatch that had been specifically designed to withstand the fury of the world’s most angry mountain. Rolex believed Sir Edmund would conquer the mountain, and especially for him they created the Rolex Explorer. In every life there is a Mount Everest to be conquered. When you have conquered yours, you’ll find your Rolex waiting patiently for you to come and pick it up at Justice Jewelers. I’m Woody Justice and I’ve got a Rolex… for you.

So when writing your ads, make sure you ask yourself: “What’s this about? What’s it REALLY about?”

P.S. If you have trouble with this, think in terms of creating an emotional understanding of an intellectual truth.

When people are confident of their next paycheck, they have a predisposition to buy most of their “because I want it” items that are within financial reach (and maybe even just out of reach as well, thanks to credit cards). ‘Cause when expendable cash keeps depositing itself into your bank account, the threshold for buyer’s remorse — or even “buyer’s hesitation” — elevates all the way to the penthouse.

But in shakier economies, not only do people’s actual levels of expendable cash drop, so do their thresholds for buying “pain.”

In fact, the threshold drops further and faster than their expendable cash. People can still afford extra-budgetary purchases, but parting with the cash feels a lot more painful. Here’s what that looks like:

Translated to copywriter-speak: many descretionary items are now shopped and bought like considered purchases, rather than impulse buys. Read more