Saturday, September 08, 2007

Ruud Sies

It's Spring and I'm Blind
Due to their homeless status it is quite difficult to determine with any amount of certainty the precise number of homeless people in the United States. Various surveys as to the exact numbers involved have been conducted over the years. Most of them are dated, or based on outdated facts. According to the most reliable estimate, the number of people in the United States having to deal with homelessness in one year amounts to approximately 3,5 million persons. (National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 2004)

Many of them live on the streets, strategically positioned at busy locations, i.e. the entrances and exits of subways or stations, at tourist attractions and in large shopping malls. By means of handwritten appeals for help they draw attention to their deplorable circumstances. In doing so they hope to change the indifference of the hurried passers-by into compassion which may subsequently be converted into a generous gift.

It is the same four-stage rocket – the Aida-formula – through which the advertising trade targets our wallets: Attention, Interest, Desire, Action.

Before Ruud Sies (1957) devoted himself once again entirely to photography he worked in advertising as an art director for over twenty years. That explains his special interest in the messages American homeless people employ to showcase themselves. During his 12-month tour of America he aimed his camera at this elementary way of advertising with a mixture of compassion and professional curiosity.

Sies took close-up photographs of the homeless in sober black and white. Only the hands holding the signs are shown. If they are not covered by gloves or mittens they turn out to be the only photographic elements in the images that reveal anything about race, age or sex. The persons themselves remain in the background. We see a segment of sidewalk, now and then some personal belongings or a dog. Due to the lack of recognizable faces everyone is anonymous. Man or woman, young or old, black or white, all those determining factors are left aside. The statistics will no doubt be able to reveal more in this respect. According to a survey conducted in 2005 – at the instigation of the US Conference of Mayors – the American homeless population consists for 43 % of men and for 17 % of single women; the remaining percentage being taken up by minors. Of these 49 % are Afro-American, 35 % Caucasian, 13 % Latin-American, 2 % are Native American and 1 % is Asian. Of the total number of homeless people 11 % are war veterans.

Through personal messages the homeless vie for attention. A basic, instinctive form of communication to which common laws of advertising nevertheless apply. Ruud Sies is not the first or only person in advertising to take a personal interest in these texts, as will be borne out by the following apocryphal anecdote about a copywriter who effectively adapted a text.

One day a blind beggar was seen to be sitting in his accustomed place in the street with the text “I’m blind” placed in full view. Passers-by hurried to their offices or home without paying much attention to him. Now and then somebody dropped some change. At a certain moment a copywriter who passed the beggar daily addressed him and asked if he might add something to the text. Permission was granted and three more words were duly added. From then on coins started pouring in. Three words made all the difference. After the copywriter’s addition the text said:
“It’s spring, and I’m blind.”

In effective communication it always boils down to catchy texts. Bill Bernbach, one of the founders of advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach, responsible for the best advertising campaign of the 20th Century ("Think Small" for Volkswagen Beetle), said: "The truth isn't the truth until people believe you, and they can't believe you if they don't know what you're saying, and they can't know what you're saying if they don't listen to you, and they won't listen to you if you're not interesting, and you won't be interesting unless you say things imaginatively, originally, freshly."

© Pim Milo

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