Visual Rhetoric/Ethics of Controversial Images

Controversial Images and Emotional Responses


Little research has been done thus far concerning the emotional effects surrounding abrasive images. How are you supposed to feel when you see a picture of child soldiers in Africa, or a composite image making a mockery of the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald? Images have the potential to elicit emotion from a viewer just as much, if not more than text alone, so why hasn't the ethics of visual communication been studied more comprehensively? As images become more and more a part of professional communication, we will see more research and ethical guidelines pertaining to the use of ethically questionable images. But for the time being, what is currently out there in the real world? Research shows that visuals play just as an important role as text, if not more important, in having an emotional impact on its audience (Kienzler, 1997). However, the code of ethics that loosely governs images is highly under-developed compared to that of its counterpart- written text. According to Stephen Casner, Ph.D., of the NASA Ames Research Center, visuals can sometimes have more impact than text when coupled together, for three reasons. First, images have a direct and quick emotional impact that linear text alone lacks. Also, when viewing a document, an audience is drawn to the images accompanying the text before the view the text itself. Last, viewers remember images much longer than they remember accompanying text. For these reasons it is important to study images and the effects that they may have on viewers just as intensely as humans have scrutinized the ethics of the written word. Visuals have an increasing impact on today's high-speed society, especially in professional communication (Keinzler, 1997). This chapter will closely examine what abrasive images are readily available to society today in an advertisement, editorial cartoons, as well as manipulated composite images. We will also discuss the emotional responses that are tied with images that cause irritation Emotionally stirring images can conjure up a lot of feelings among their viewers, whether that is joy or anger. Although the text has the ability to do so, there is a much more comprehensive set of ethical codes that go along with them. Currently, there are no real standards set thus far for visuals beyond what is considered pornographic, and with a lack of these needed standards, the envelope will only be pushed farther and farther. As the ethical boundary is pushed, and line for what is considered ethical will follow closely behind. If the current trend of abrasive and irritating images continues to move, the ethical standard will continue to drop. It is the responsibility of the viewer to act as a critical thinker and determine if an image is unjustly abrasive. The following sections will discuss the different aspects of the controversial images listed above. Please use the information below as an informational start to see how current issues and other controversial debates can be manipulated. Although the ethical code of images may change soon to mirror the standards of text in public domains, for now, it is the responsibility of the reader to determine what they should consider ethical and stand against.

Composite Images, Photoshop & Irritation


Our life is filled with emotionally-charged images that may contradict our traditional ways of interpreting and thinking. One way that we are challenged in our views is through images that shock, or surprise, an audience. Traditionally, these images are found in advertisements, but more recently we find ourselves being challenged by the popular art of composite images. Photoshop is a growing trend in our culture, mostly among the younger generation, that allows our everyday images to be turned into something extraordinary whether it’s a politically-charged message or just something that we like to parody. This fairly new program opens up a world of possibilities when it comes to images and visual rhetoric given that these images can be manipulated to portray a biased opinion or view. Oftentimes in a composite image the more shocking the material, the better; and the more blatant or disturbing an image is, the more we question the ethics of the author and their intentions. Given an uproar in composite images after the advent of Photoshop, we are often brought to ask ourselves whether it is the fault of the program or audience for potentially abusing the power of the program.

Mostly, our questioning of these images leads us to a different way of thinking and a way of reflecting in upon ourselves; on what it is that disturbs us about certain images and why. For example, in a recent class presentation, my partner and I used a composite image of JonBenet Ramsey as a demonstration of how composite images strike a sort of “irritation” between our social standards or ideals and our emotions. The composite is of a bartender’s body with JonBenet’s head “photoshopped” onto the figure. The child appears to be mixing a cocktail in this up-scale environment with a martini shaker made of a judicial figure. The author of the image wrote on his website Doctor Cosmo that he made the image because he thought the trial of the case “was a mockery of the judicial system, and how money can’t buy you, love…but it can certainly keep your ass out of jail.” This image stirs our beliefs and makes us question if it’s morally correct to use an image of a child who died so young and horribly in an image that mocks our system. When presenting material with my partner, we questioned if the image of JonBenet would offend our audience, but we quickly realized that sometimes it is good to shock people with emotionally-charged images because we get more of a reaction and we begin to question why it is that we get so offended.

Perhaps the reason why composite images are so controversial is that they often use subjects that are displaced from their original contexts and transform them into a completely new perspective. As a result, we feel transplanted along with the subject. This change in contexts is what initially draws our attention to the image, and it may be why we initially become shocked when looking at a divisive image. Alternately, one of the reasons composite images can be rhetorical is that they sometimes shed new light on a subject, almost as if to give us a fresh new outlook on what it is that we’re seeing. When we see things as if we see them for the first time, we tend to think of them in an alternate way and maybe easier persuaded given we gain a different perspective. Often images that grab our attention the most are shocking and controversial, so much so that we experience a sort of "irritation" between our cultural, social, and moral discourses. Craig Stroupe describes his theory of the rhetoric of irritation as "inappropriate juxtapositions" that work together to create a sort of dialog "among normally unrelated voices and contexts, produc[ing] both an irritation whether expressed visually, verbally or in some hybrid form like a Web page- as well as a social irritation in the audience who registers this friction as a kind of disruption of "normal" discourse" (245). The "irritation" that we experience can offend or enhance our character simply because it's a different outlook on an image that we are normally not accustomed to.

Unfortunately, with composite images, ethics is always in question. Is it appropriate to remove context from a subject or image and transfer it to another? Is ethics still a problem if the image is overall rhetorical and better for the good of society? Does a composite image have to go along with societal ideals? The answer to all these questions is subjective and ultimately depends on who you ask, but in interpreting composite images, it is always crucial to get “the big picture” and understand both sides of the argument being portrayed. Only then can you make an informed decision about the rhetorical nature and purpose. Essentially, in the search for an even clearer answer to the ethical question, composite image creators should be more aware and sensitive that audiences often view manipulated images with a naive eye and audiences need to educate themselves and question what is being portrayed in a composite image in reference to what is being said, what should be said, and what they believe is right.

Shocking Advertisements


Juxtaposition and irritation can be used in order to advertise products. This idea is called “shock advertising”. You maybe be wondering, “Why would anybody use a controversial image in an advertisement?” The answer is simple- “Any publicity is good publicity.”

Two companies’ that are well known for their shock advertisement strategies are United Colors of Benetton and Calvin Klein. Calvin Klein received a great deal of attention when they used an underage Brooke Shields in their advertisements very provocatively. This controversy led to a great deal of free press covering the story. However, it is not only the free press that encourages companies to use shock advertisements. This also markets their goods and services to a younger more “socially conscious” age group. This type of shock advertisement makes the company seem edgy or youthful. Peter Fressola, communications director for United Colors of Benetton, defended a Diesel Jeans advertisement, which depicted a gun pointed at the audience, by saying “Jeans are about sex and danger. And the people who are offended by these ads are probably not Diesel customers anyway.” However, it is not just clothing companies that have been known to use shock advertisements. Barnardo’s, a London based charity, helps many different poverty-stricken families all across Great Britain, is also known for having very controversial ads. In the year 2000, they had an ad that depicted an infant baby about to inject heroin. They also ran an ad campaign, which staged five death and suicide scenes. One of the passages read, “From age three, Jane was neglected and a large part of her died. Her future died. 19 years later, after being lured into prostitution, she was beaten so badly by her Pimp she died for real. What a waste.” Barnardo’s was asked to remove the campaign due to criticism. However, donations increased by 5 percent to the charity. As much as these images may elicit a negative emotional response, they will not be forgotten.

Editorial Cartoons: Pictures With a Point


An editorial cartoon, commonly referred to as a political cartoon, is an illustration or comic strip containing a political or social message that usually relates to current events or personalities Wikipedia. Cartoonists must often rely on symbolism, exaggeration, labeling, analogy, and irony to demonstrate the point they are trying to make. More often than not there is controversy surrounding an editorial cartoon because of the subject matter. The purpose of an editorial cartoon is to make a point and to make people think. Although editorial cartoons are often funny if you understand the underlying issue, their main purpose is to persuade the audience. Editorial cartoons thrive off of controversy and offensive material because it creates debate and discussion of the issue presented. It is important to keep in mind that a cartoon does not always portray the actual opinion of the publication, but is a reflection of the cartoonists’ interpretation of the surrounding world.

Editorial cartoons are communicative because the cartoonist uses visual symbols for the purpose of communicating to an audience. Foss defines three characteristics that define artifacts or products conceptualized as visual rhetoric. An artifact must be symbolic, involve human intervention, and be presented to an audience for the purpose of communicating (Foss, p. 304). Editorial cartoons meet the stated criteria because of the symbolism the cartoonists use to portray particular events, people, places, governments, religions, ideas, etc. The cartoons are created in response to recent events and are made with the purpose of making a point to an audience. The cartoonist consciously decides to communicate about a certain topic and conveys a message through conscious decisions to utilize certain colors, forms, and symbols. Editorial cartoons use images and drawings to express a complex message in a simplified form.

A more recent editorial cartoon that has caused a lot of controversies is the series of images representing the Prophet Mohammed in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005. An editor, Flemming Rose, asked newspaper cartoonists to draw the prophet Mohammed as they saw him. A few days later, twelve different cartoonists submitted their depictions and were published in the paper. The images initiated controversy immediately because of the sensitive and sacred subject being presented in an insensitive and offensive manner. Soon to follow the publication of the cartoons were the burnings of the Danish flag, protests and boycotts of Danish products, and violence. The cartoons became famous around the world because of the amount of controversy they had stirred up. Some newspapers reprinted the images while others chose to describe the cartoons through words. The New York Times and many other U.S. newspapers chose not to reprint the images, “saying they were motivated either by respect for or fear of those who might be offended” (Cannon).

There is a fine line between the freedom of expression and respecting the people, events, or issues depicted in the cartoons. Although the purpose of editorial cartoons is to make a point, strike up a conversation and make the readers think, cartoonists should choose the messages they want to convey with care. It is ok for cartoonists to express a sensitive message but it should be executed in a fashion that won’t lead to violence. It is impossible to draw something that is completely void of controversy because somebody will always find something offensive. Editorial cartoons are not the news and do not have to be fair and unbiased, however, the cartoonists have a responsibility to create their cartoons with care. Cartoonists should not aim to generate tensions which could lead to violence but should present their cartoon in a tasteful manner.

On the other side of the paper, the readers of the cartoon need to be responsible for viewing and analyzing the image. It is important for readers to keep in mind that the point of the editorial cartoon is to make people think. Sometimes the images or content may be offensive, but the cartoonist is not drawing an image to target anyone or group in particular, rather express a message that is relevant to events and situations. Readers must remain critical viewers of these images.

Emotional Response


People are constantly being tested by outside stimuli such as the media and are faced with images and advertisements that can sometimes be shockingly controversial. In some cases, such controversial ads do not feature the product, but rather an idea. United Colors of Benetton, a clothing company discussed earlier in the chapter, is known for their emotionally stirring advertisements. During the peak years of their controversial campaigns, many of their advertisements have been a topic of discussion. A popular technique for the United Colors of Benetton is to take a unique but daring approach in their advertisements by featuring sensitive issues rather than people wearing their product. One year, an advertisement ran with a picture of a dying AIDS patient branded with the company’s logo.

United Colors of Benetton AIDS Campaign Image

Companies taking the shock approach in their advertisements do so in order to ultimately drive up product sales. Companies know that controversy receives much publicity and thus creates attention. How does the shock approach in advertising and images correlate to a customer making a purchase? These images and advertisements are created by companies to spark debate and discussion among buyers in the hopes that the emotional response the advertisement provoked was strong enough for people to make a purchase.

People are naturally inclined to pass judgment but are often psychologically influenced by the complexities of emotions. Each individual has differing sets of emotions which stem from his or her life events and experiences. Because such a range of emotions can exist, it allows room for differing interpretation. With this in mind, it is difficult to create any broad assumptions when it comes to how one should view a shocking, irritating or controversial image. But there are certain factors, both internal and external, that should be taken into account when understanding ones emotions towards these visuals. People are also influenced by their environment. It might be easy to say that consumers are able to perceive an object or person without interference from the perception of the physical and social surroundings of that object or person; however this is not always the case. People bring their personality to the things they do in their daily lives which involve other people whether it be through work, school, nightlife, or church. Past experiences shape an individual’s personality which can further influence and be influenced by one’s environment. Lastly, people are influenced by their social centers. Social groups have a huge impact on how images and advertisements are perceived. A common interest is usually the core of what brings a social group together. However, differing opinions may arise which can change people’s opinions and beliefs. It isn’t just the image or advertisement that is being interpreted, it is the brand. The opinions that come from social circles can impact how one is influenced into purchasing behavior.

We have discussed many mediums where controversial images may appear. However, this list is far from comprehensive. Controversial Images can appear in a wide variety of public and private spheres. As an informed consumer of the above mentioned mediums, you are responsible for the ethical standards you hold for the visuals you view. As said before, the amount and severity of controversial images in the public sphere has continued to increase, and in turn the ethical standards of said images has been slowly decreasing, and the proverbial ethical bar is following. For the time being, no public policy change will occur regarding this issue. Informed consumers must act as the vigilante.

Works Cited


Cannon, Sara. "Controversial Cartoons Lead to Worldwide Concern For Speech, Press Freedom, and Religious Views." Silha Center. 18 Apr 2007 <>.

"Ctrl-Alt-Del Designs Parody of Sony’s Controversial Ad." 07 July 2006. 12 Apr 2007 <>.

"Dr. Cosmo's 1999 Photoshop Gallery." 15 Apr 2007 <>.

Foss, Sonja K. "Framing the Study of Visual Rhetoric: Toward a Transformation of Rhetorical Theory." Defining Visual Rhetorics. Ed. Charles A. Hill, Marguerite Helmers. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 2004.

Kienzler, Donna (1997).Visual Ethics. Journal of Business Communication. 34, 171.

Lester, Paul M. 4th ed. United States: Holly J. Allen, 2006. 68-70.

McNally, Greer. "What Makes a Photograph Controversial?." 2003. Photography Blog. 12 Apr 2007 <>.

Merryman, John. Law, Ethics and the Visual Arts. 2. New York: M. Bender, 1979.

"Sony pulls controversial PSP ad campaign." 06 Aug 2006. 12 Apr 2007 <>.

Stroupe, Craig. "The Rhetoric of Irritation: Inappropriateness as Visual/Literate Practice." Defining Visual Rhetorics. Ed. Charles A. Hill, Marguerite Helmers. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 2004.

United Colors of Benetton. “Our Campaigns.” Campaign History. Internet. Accessed 12 April 2007. <>.

Willenz, Pam. "Personality Influences the Brain's Responses to Emotional Situations more than Thought, According to New Research." American Psychological Association. 4 Feb 2001. Internet. Accessed 12 April 2007. <>.