The right image mage can be a powerful way to capture and engage people on an important issue. Three main tips for selecting the right image are:
Use images that evoke an emotional connection.
Use images that are recognised as relevant to the topic/issue being communicated.
Use images that are personally relevant to the viewer.
In a recent study, I applied these principles in the context of sustainable urban storm-water management.
The Australian government is investing large amounts of money in new, sustainable storm-water management initiatives. These initiatives will help address future challenges associated with increasingly extreme rainfall events like storms, cyclones and flood. But as with any new policy initiative, the government must ensure that the wider community is supportive of this transition away from traditional storm-water management practices. The traditional storm-water systems focus on pipes and sewer systems, and the new systems use more sustainable solutions such as rain-gardens, green-walls and wetlands.
Knowing which images engage or disengage people can help people to better understand this transition.
To understand how people engage with pictures related to storm-water management, I showed 70 different images (commonly used in communications about storm-water management) to a group of community members from Brisbane, Queensland. I asked this community which images created the most emotional connection, were perceived to be relevant to the topic of storm-water management, and were considered to be personally relevant to them.
What I found was that images of nature, especially images of oceans and reefs, were very good at creating an emotional connection. These same pictures were thought to be personally relevant, but most people did understand their relevance to storm-water management.
Conversely, everyone indicated that pictures of traditional storm-water infrastructure, such as drains and storm-water outlets, were relevant to the topic, but they evoked disgust. We also found that people thought these pictures were the least personally relevant of all the pictures shown.
Images of familiar environments such as local parks and cityscapes, and images that included people engaging with their natural environment, such as riding a bike or walking in a park, were considered to be highly personally relevant. Unfortunately, people did not feel strong emotional connections to new storm-water management solutions such as rain-gardens and green-walls. These were also not considered relevant to the topic or personally relevant to them. Only images of flooding elicited strong emotional connections for people and were considered both relevant to the topic and personally relevant.
This suggests that images of localised flood events represent the best opportunity to engage community members with the topic of storm-water management.
Overall, the results of our study highlight that it is difficult to find one “perfect” image.
Aside from images of flooding, no other images successfully created an emotional connection, and were seen to be relevant to the topic as well as personally relevant.
We must be careful to select images that match the goals of our message. For example, if the goal was to have people feel good about a storm-water management policy, then using images of drains and storm-water outlets would be counterproductive. However, this type of image may be helpful to help people recognize the connection to storm-water management. Whereas, including images of familiar landscapes and/or people would be best is to increase the personal relevance of sustainable urban storm-water management.
Ultimately while images can be a powerful way to engage people with pro-environmental messages, some are more effective, and some may even be detrimental. The study highlights the importance of conducting research to improve our understanding of the role of images in pro-environmental campaigns.
You can read more about the results of our study here.
- Tracy Schultz
All researchers in the Social Change Lab contribute to the "Do Good" blog. Click the author's name at the bottom of any post to learn more about their research or get in touch.