A shiver of recognition passed through the advertising industry this week, as people passed around a link titled This is a Generic Brand Video.
Based on a satirical piece on the McSweeney's website, the video perfectly pans the ad campaigns and internal corporate videos filled with cliché stock footage. Images of wind farms, diverse groups of smiling people and stop-motion city landscapes are accompanied by narration with indistinguishable pablum about innovation, the environment and the global economy.
But the strange thing is, this video making fun of stock footage is itself an ad for stock footage.
The small Calgary-based company Dissolve Footage liked the article so much, they asked the author for permission to make the Generic Brand Video.
The company launched in September, and its marketing strategy with the video is based on a bet that potential clients are becoming more wary of stock images that feel overused or inauthentic. And Dissolve is not alone. Bigger companies such as Getty Images are attempting to move toward more artful and real-looking photos. In July, another startup in Columbus, Ohio, decided to name itself Death to the Stock Photo.
"You get these shiny happy people and it's all staged," said Dissolve CEO Patrick Lor.
It's not just the small startups trying to get away from that. Getty Images, for example, has partnered with photo-sharing service Flickr to make photography gleaned from real life (and some amateur photographers) part of its collection. And last month, Getty announced a partnership with Sheryl Sandberg's LeanIn.org to publicize more realistic, active and empowering images of women.
Getty had many of those images in its library already; the Lean In Collection allowed it to advertise them more effectively. And the organization has now put out a brief to photographers asking for more images of women and girls in leadership positions; subjects who represent different geographic regions, ages and body types; and images of more supportive men as well, both in the workplace and at home.
"We've been pushing towards a more authentic aesthetic for a number of years now," Pam Grossman, director of visual trends at Getty, said.
Stock photography is not going away: Even big advertising agencies have to use it when they don't want to blow their budgets on creating speculative work to show a prospective client in a pitch, for example, or when they need an image for a small part of a campaign that would be too expensive to shoot on their own. The same goes for most media companies – The Globe and Mail among them – who use stock images for conceptual stories where there is nothing to shoot, or when a photographer is unavailable.
But as the demand for images has grown, particularly on the Web, and the stock industry has expanded with it, awareness and criticism of bad stock photos have also been on the rise.
The popular Tumblr blog Women Laughing Alone with Salad is entirely dedicated to a single stock photo trope.
And the website Getty Critics showcases the clichés, such as "serious mixed race man sitting in office cubicle" and "happy family driving in a convertible car," as well as bizarre choices such as "woman about to hit man with saucepan at breakfast."
"The primary driver is really social media," Ms. Grossman said. "So many people are looking at images of each other and sharing images of themselves, far more than at any other point in history. It's really sensitized our corrective eye to real or more authentic images."
But one barrier to more realistic images may be legal concerns: The founders of Death to the Stock Photo quickly discovered how complicated the licensing can be. Each person captured in a commercial photograph needs to sign a release, for one; and even buildings in the background can pose a problem, said co-founder David Sherry.
One reason photos with flat lighting and shiny people on white backgrounds have stuck around, is that staged photos that use only a handful of models are simple to execute and sell without legal complications.
Small and medium-sized businesses may also inadvertently keep the old-fashioned stock business alive, because they take the images they can afford even if they aren't the best photos.
But the demand for different photos is palpable: Death to the Stock Photo's name has been an excellent marketing tool.
"It was kind of a rallying cry," Mr. Sherry said. "My co-founder and I are both designers, and we always had the same issue. It was really hard to find non-cheesy photography, and it was expensive. … We definitely have gotten a positive reaction. We have grown significantly since we started."
Calgary's Dissolve has latched on to a similar idea: In less than a week, its Generic Brand Video landed more than 800,000 views.
"It's so funny because it's so true," Brent Choi, chief creative and integration officer at ad agency JWT Canada, said. "Everyone has done these videos. That's the part that is so embarrassing."
Mostly, that applies to client pitches, Mr. Choi said – the kind of work intended more to communicate a general idea of what the campaign could be, as opposed to work for public consumption, where stock is used more to augment footage or images the agency shoots from scratch. Sometimes those stock-heavy videos will appeal to clients, who will use them internally, he said.
Mr. Choi keeps a handful of those videos on his computer, which he shows to his team specifically because they are not generic.
"If you can find a great insight for the brand that's not generic, that's what we need to replicate," he said.
Dissolve's video uses lines from the McSweeney's piece such as: "See how this guy in a lab coat holds up a beaker? That means we do research. Here's a picture of DNA." Another gem: "Using a specific ratio of Asian people to black people to women to white men, we want to make sure we represent your needs and interests – or at least a version of your skin colour – in our ads." In Mr. Lor's view, consumers' skepticism for inauthentic marketing such as this is higher than it's ever been.
"We always suspected that people did other stuff during commercials. Now, you know," he said. "The level for people watching the stuff is so high. No longer can you get out a brand message and expect people to sit there and watch it … Marketers are telling us, 'I have to up my game.'"