Stock Photo Scandal: Who's Really in Those Ads?

Michelle Sullivan

When a Republican-backed ad campaign- intended to humanize the party's supporters and portray them as diverse-launched last fall, it was met with a merciless social-media storm. The backlash from the campaign, which featured a video compilation of photos of supposed Republicans and introduced the now-infamous #IAmARepublican hashtag, intensified when news broke that at least one of the photos included in the video had been sourced from Getty Images' iStock.

But the use of stock photos in advertising is quite common, says Neil Widerschein, chief creative officer for Columbus-based SBC Advertising. "The cost of shooting an original person is really high, while using a stock photo is significantly less," he says. "We're talking hundreds of dollars versus several thousand." It's particularly common in health care, he adds.

Take the wall-sized ad for the James cancer hospital that for years hung at Port Columbus International Airport. (It was only recently replaced with an image of the new hospital facility.) Earlier in 2014, a spokeswoman for the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center confirmed the arresting bald, blue-eyed woman in the ad was a stock photo, not a patient at the James, though her portrait is featured alongside the sentence, "I have a team of experts who are focused on treating just one type of cancer-mine." Contacted again in November, the media relations office declined to elaborate on the ad or the photo.

On the other hand, the Nationwide Children's Hospital ads visible Downtown along Third Street feature former patients, according to a hospital spokeswoman. Nathan Lemle, creative director for Orange Barrel Media, which produced the billboard-style ads, says it's ideal to use original photography as often as possible. "You're trying to create a message for your client," he says. "If you use a stock image and it shows up in a competitor's ad, it'll ruin that concept you're trying to create."

Though Huntington National Bank typically runs text-only advertisements, they've also used ads that feature both original and stock photography. "We prefer to use our own commissioned photography when possible," spokesman Adam Ferguson says. When they do use stock photos, he adds, they try to avoid "expected or overly posed images."

Widerschein warns the line between when stock art is and isn't appropriate is thin, but there's a clear bottom line: "If it's a testimonial, it has to be a real person and that needs to be their opinion. You don't just fake that."