The Power of Narrative Images in an Attention Economy:
The iconic poster for John Hughes’ hugely popular film Home Alone (1990) is, quite simply, a brilliant work of visual storytelling. Yes--I'm talking about the film's poster. I like the film as well, but the poster works in an entirely different way. And content strategy has much to learn from its example.
In what follows, I look at how the simple, yet strategically developed details in the poster work together to condense a full narrative of complex ideas and emotions into a simple glance. I then return to the implications of the poster for effective content strategy: In our “attention economy,” narrative images provide optimum information at a minimum cost of precious audience concentration.
Let's take a closer look at the poster:
In the poster, a young Macaulay Culkin has his hands to his face in mock/shock/horror as two clearly ne’er-do-well bad guys (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) look on through the window behind him. The top of the poster reads, “When Kevin’s family left for vacation, they forgot one minor detail: Kevin,” and the tag-line promises “A family comedy without the family,” while type just below the center of the poster reassures, “But don’t worry . . . He cooks. He cleans. He kicks some butt.”
Tone: The Feeling in the Visuals
Though visually very simple, as a narrative, the poster’s tone actually navigates meticulously complex and delicate emotional terrain. The set-up is given, namely that Kevin is all alone, having been abandoned by his family, and he’s now clearly under threat. This premise is actually pretty horrifying—in fact, it could easily serve as that of a horror film, or of a horrifying drama. Yet the poster successfully manages to present the film as a family comedy—and not only because its tagline literally insists on labelling it as such.
More powerfully, the tone of the poster shows us these comedic dimensions. After all, Joe Pesci’s “evil face” is too comically overdone to be taken seriously; the initial set-up’s sarcastic attitude, epitomized in the ironic reference to forgetting Kevin as being “a minor detail,” elicits humor.
Indeed, Kevin’s famously hyperbolic “scream face” epitomizes the complex use of tone. A hallmark of the film’s iconic place in cultural memory, Kevin’s exaggerated expression gains its power from its capacity to mix shock and humor, capturing the film’s excitement while playfully suppressing it’s more horrific premise: Sure the very idea of a child’s being left alone and vulnerable to criminals is totally disturbing; but, in the film, it’s all in fun!
Arrangement of Details in the Frame:
In other words, the image at once elicits danger while reassuring us of a happy and fun resolution. The arrangement of details contributes to this implicit message. The center of the poster, in which Kevin dominates the scene, also tries its best to assure us that the boy is in charge. The poster alludes to a horrifying situation and one of seeming powerlessness, yet Kevin's dominant place in the image also promises a flip in those power dynamics. Hence it also promises the child viewer a vicarious experience of power, complete with the “I don’t need my parents” sentiment—a common theme in childhood stories (likeWhere the Wild Things Are, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, both of which also employ powerful narrative imagery). The latter theme highlights the child’s dual, contrary needs for independence and security. The poster, in other words, communicates a complex and ambiguous psychological state: A child’s desire for freedom from parental rules and restrictions (Kevin can watch violent movies and eat all the junk food he wants) alongside his deeper need for parental guidance and protection.
Conflict and Resolution:
The poster’s slapstick, exaggerated expressions diffuse and negotiate all this complexity in humor: The poster appeals to a child’s need to resist the authority, rules, and structure of the adult world through simple references to the naughtiness of “kicking butt.” Kevin literally and figuratively occupies the center of the action. The poster thus builds drama then telegraphs a comic release of tension that promises parents and children can laugh off great fears and enjoy a magic-make-believe scenario in which an otherwise horrifying prospect is stripped of danger.
All the while, too, this creates mystery and intrigue: Since Kevin seems so obviously in peril, how will he reverse the situation and “kick some butt”? The poster speaks quite clearly to parental and kid tensions and concerns, but assuages them, while leaving a narrative hook to bring them to the movie theater.
Visual Stories Condense Time By Capturing a Sequence of Events in a Frozen Moment
Through careful use of visual arrangement (in this case, the positioning of characters within the frame of the image), minimal text, and tone, the poster thus communicates a full narrative arch: Setting, conflict, and potential resolution, without giving away specific events. More importantly, the poster presents and negotiates complex, densely layered dimensions of information.
We do not tend to think of single images as stories because the very idea of a story suggests a linear unfolding sequence of events over time: Exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, then resolution--each follows stage leads to another. A still image, on the other hand, present all the stages of a story at once, condensing and contract time into a single informational frame that we then process and sort out in sequential order in our minds.
The Still Image Does Not Replace the Longer Narrative
Obviouslyt, looking at the poster for Home Alone is not the same as viewing the film. And herein lie the specific strengths and limits of narrative images: They can condense complex information—often much more than we consciously realize—into the time required for little more than a glance; yet, a story presented in a still image does not offer the same immersive experience as a longer narrative. This is not to say that that the still image is inferior to the longer form, or vice versa. As a means for presenting narratives, still images and long-form stories are apples and oranges. They work in different ways.
The Power of Brevity in an Age of Distraction
The brevity of still images like the Home Alone movie poster nevertheless demonstrates their extraordinary power, both in the industrial era that the saw rise of poster ads and in our current digital moment: In a technologized world that accelerates our interaction with overwhelming amounts of visual information, the image offers a quick glimpse into a complex arrangement of narrative events, affects, and ideas. At the same time, a single, visual narrative nevertheless does not serve as a stand-in for a longer narrative form. Rather, ideally, the two forms work in tandem. Combined, the two forms provide a powerful strategy for developing engaging and complex content.
The Contrary Demands of Content Strategy
Content strategy can learn much from the synergy at work between movie posters and their full-length narrative counterparts.
As I have explored in another post, effective content strategy must meet 2 contrary demands:
- It must present content with the brevity to capture audience attention within the distracted contexts of online reading environments;
- At the same time, effective content must communicate the full complexity of the topic at hand.
As a result of these contrary demands, many content creators feel pressure to choose between simplicity and complexity: Should they capture attention with reductive content, or present complex content that risks getting passed over as too long? (For an excellent and wonderfully inspired discussion of this dilemma, I highly recommend a post on why people matter in content, by master storyteller Christy Miles.)
Still Image-Narratives as Drivers for Long-Form Content
Employed effectively, an image can do much more than “hype” a story. Rather, an effective visual can tell a certain, complex and nuanced version of the story itself. As applied to digital strategy, content creators can then pair these images with long-form content. The brevity of the image captures viewer attention that then drives greater interest and traffic to the more immersive experience of the long-form narrative. Better yet, marketing teams are no longer left to choose between simplicity and complexity.
Rather, they have a newly efficient means of adding complexity to long-form content. At MarketScale, we’ve come to call this shorter, attention-grabbing material driver content. By using images to show and tell the main ideas of your longer story, drivers present a powerful strategic tool in marketing’s ongoing battle against what I have elsewhere called marketing’s greatest enemy: The Age of Distraction.
Director of Content at MarketScale
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