The Power of People in Imagery

July 7, 2015

Which of the following images do you think would inspire you to purchase energy-efficient light bulbs?


If you are anything like the test subjects of an experiment Resource Media ran with the SEE Change Institute, you’d have most likely picked the second image with the person in it.

At Resource Media, we’ve seen time and time again how photos showing real people in environmental advocacy communications drum up more support for important causes. It’s not enough to just show pristine or threatened landscapes. Instead, images showing how people are impacted by or are working to protect these precious places to really grab viewers’ attention and boost engagement.

The same is true when it comes to energy efficiency. Images of fancy light bulbs, washing machines and refrigerators fail to grab attention and inspire people to act. But unfortunately, that’s the status quo for energy efficiency communications. Imagery tends to focus on technology rather than on real people and their unique stories. Neuroscience and our own research show that photos of real people taking positive action– such as simply changing out a light bulb -– can get people excited about energy efficiency and thinking about ways they could save energy.

Now we have even more data to back that up. Resource Media recently partnered with the SEE Change Institute – an independent team of social scientists, psychologists and behavioral experts – on a project to test the effectiveness of various images, messages and graphics on small business energy reports being piloted by EnerNOC, a leading provider of energy intelligence software that helps utilities around the world better understand and engage business customers.

The reports are designed to give business owners feedback on how much they are spending on energy, how their costs compare to their peers, plus tips for saving energy. In a recent experiment, we presented 257 test subjects with two versions of the energy-saving tips (shown above) – 132 people saw the tip with an image of the technology itself, and the other 125 saw a tip with a photo of a person with the technology.

Hands down, the image of the person shopping for efficient light bulbs out performed the image of the bulbs alone. A significantly higher number of test subjects (n=99 or 80 percent) that saw the person-focused image reported they were likely to upgrade lighting than those who saw just the technology image (n=88 or 60 percent).

Of all the variables we tested, the person vs. no person image was among those that had the most significant impact on people’s stated behavioral intention.

For companies like EnerNOC that create these reports for large utilities, even a small jump in energy savings – 1 or 2 percent – is significant when multiplied across hundreds of thousands of customers in a service territory. Knowing which images motivate people to take action can translate to millions more dollars and kilowatts in energy savings. You can bet that these reports will be going out with people-focused images.

— Debbie Slobe