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The Cure for Stock Photography is Inside Your Camera Phone

Created 7/24/2014 by Justin Holzgrove
Updated 8/26/2014 by Vic Hubbard
377 views • 7 comments
5 people like this

You can spot a stock photo from miles away, right? Mid-twenties Caucasian male wearing a headset, grinning like a fool, ready to help you configure your wireless router to connect to the internet; Attractive African American woman with cool kinky hair in a power stance for a telecommunications company; Looking in uncomfortably on an awkward parent-child interaction; A casual worker with a silly smile waiting to sell you whatever gizmo or service their company provides; teenagers who absolutely LOVE manual labor! It’s even worse when the same “model” is advertising for multiple products in different categories.

Have you ever noticed that people look different based on where they live? You can usually pick a Californian or a Portland resident out of a lineup. Mason PUD 3 had similar concerns regarding the available marketing collateral for ductless heating and cooling systems and energy efficiency communication options in general.

The marketing materials that were available to utilities for free (from BPA and NW Ductless Heat Pump Project) depicted upper middle class homes in an urban environment with upper middle class-looking people. It doesn't take long to stroll through the local Shelton Wal-Mart to notice that the people in the available marketing collateral look a little bit different than the people in Shelton, WA. A quick drive through rural Mason County will reveal a much different looking home than those depicted in the urban stock photo environments.

Mason PUD 3’s service territory is made up of about 23% manufactured homes, whereas the Pacific Northwest is about 10%. Mason County has staggering socio-economic numbers, including approximately 11% unemployment rate, 16% of residents living in poverty, and the per capita income is 27% less than that of Washington State. Energy efficiency upgrades like a ductless heat pump in a home can make a tremendous impact on winter/summer comfort, lower monthly utility bills, and a positive impact on the health and well-being of the family.

The existing ductless heat pump marketing materials would not have been a good fit for Mason PUD 3 and its customers, so we went to work! Mason PUD 3 worked with BPA to take new stock photos with a Mason County resident, in a Mason County manufactured home, who enjoys his Mason County PUD 3 ductless heat pump, which was installed by a Mason County heating contractor. We used a Mason County photographer (Cooper Studios) to take the pictures. All of the pictures used in the flier were taken on-site during our photo shoot. These images are now a part of BPA’s stock photo library for utilities around the region to use for free to promote future energy efficiency projects.

We think a promotional flier that uses an authentic context for the target audience will have a greater impact, and in turn yield better results, than a generic stock photo image set. Apparently, Mason PUD 3 isn't the first to identify this growing concern. This is Pam Grossman, director of visual trends for the Seattle-based stock photo giant, Getty Images:


“Customers have been asking Getty for more true-to-life stock photos. We’re seeing a pendulum swing toward this authentic culture.” 


This quote comes from an article by Clive Thompson on The Stock Photo Problem (Wired Magazine, June 2014). The quick article covers the shortcomings of the stock photo problem. By trying to be all messages to all clients, stock photos have descended into stereotypical caricatures of the lowest common denominator subject at hand. (Sample images omitted!)

I’d be remiss to leave out the incredible movement attempting to shift this culture, with remarkable results. See Getty’s Lean In collection. (ß That link is worth the click!)


As our focus narrows, as it does with energy efficiency, and the utility business in general, our stock photo options become very limited. But guess who’s working with real end-users who are enjoying their new ductless heat pump? And guess who knows a sweet old lady whose house is less drafty, and more comfortable after receiving a significant rebate from her local utility to weatherize it? Guess who knows the forgotten heroes that journey out into the elements on a cold, dark, rainy night to clean up fallen trees, and restore power to a quiet community? We do!


“The true cure for stock photography is inside your camera phone.”

- Clive Thompson


Images tell our story, and as #Instagram betrays our behaviors, we are all capturing beautiful images all day long! What if we created our own Pacific Northwest utility stock photo exchange? #energyefficiency #conduitnw #EE #stockphoto #saveenergy


Perhaps Conduit can explore this in its future feature road map? There are many logistics to consider, and here’s a significant list to get us started: legal releases for subject and photographer, Creative Common licenses, database and tag management, bandwidth, etc.


That’s my pitch- can you picture it?


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Comments (7)
Justin Holzgrove on 07/24/14 on 10:25 AM (Pacific Time)
So, did authentic local stock photos make a difference in our Ductless Heat Pump marketing collateral?I think it was a major component of a historically successful DHP campaign, that included a significant price signal (lowered incentive) and a firm deadline. Read more here.
David Moody on 07/31/14 on 04:00 PM (Pacific Time)
I love every bit of this idea, and I'd love to help it along. 

What do others think, would you use, and, more importantly, participate in a crowd sourced stock photo pool on Conduit?
Sarah F. Moore on 08/01/14 on 01:32 PM (Pacific Time)
The BPA Residential  team was thrilled with Justin's offer to help us capture more usable photos for Ductless Heat Pumps.  We've had generous offers recently from Emerald PUD and others, allowing us to expand our library of photos to benefit both our residential marketing materials and technical manuals.

Thanks to great collaboration, we have the opportunity to expand these resources and provide value to the region at a very, very low cost.
Ben Fowler on 08/01/14 on 01:46 PM (Pacific Time)
This idea just makes sense! One of the original visions for Conduit was for it to be a repository of marketing materials. With a bit of enhancement and dev work, I think we could pretty easily create a "library" of images on Conduit for this purpose. I will look into how feasible it is for launching something like this early next year. More to come...
NW Ductless Heat Pump Project Team on 08/06/14 on 09:42 AM (Pacific Time)
Great post, Justin! The true ductless story is best told when it is localized and relatable. We love the idea of a crowd sourced image library on Conduit, and we’d be delighted to work with you all to help make it a reality. In the interim, the NW Ductless Heat Pump Project has continued to try and build a library of photographs that the region can use royalty free, particularly for partners who don’t have resources for localized photo shoots. We will be releasing a new wave of photographs - product and lifestyle shots - within the next month or two. We recognize these photographs may not resonate with every utilities’ customer-base, so we welcome the opportunity to work with you all to address this gap going forward.
Justin Holzgrove on 08/07/14 on 09:41 AM (Pacific Time)

I just noticed that NWPPA has this session available in September on "Cell Phone Photography": http://www.nwppa.org/External/WCPages/WCEvents/EventDetail.aspx?EventID=122155


Vic Hubbard on 08/26/14 on 12:50 PM (Pacific Time)
Good article, Justin. I'm always willing to share my images. Some are even decent!