Continuing our ‘Making You Look’ Trend Briefing, we explore current campaign usages of that most familiar advertising image – the Handshake. What’s the future for this multi-tasking image?
In our fast-changing times there’s a moment when a person, or visual sign becomes so famous, so well known that – like a Big Brother celebrity – we forget the reason it became so well-known. The handshake is the “Celebrity” of concepts, a visual sign whose meaning is so obvious and familiar we gloss over its rich plasticity in marketing communications. It’s a Greeting? A Good-bye? Closing-the-deal? Friendship? Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.
It’s all of those, it’s even just the sign of ‘relationship’ itself, as in the sepia-toned handshake above, because the handshake between friends is always sepia-toned.
In that sense the handshake was always a mental photo-op, something we stored away, even before the age of the political photo-opportunity where the handshake took on the form of ‘pressing the flesh’.
So beyond the one-to-one of the friendship, the handshake always had a social and political dimension, being part of the ritual of the ritual of agreement, the congratulatory exchange, the transformational ritual of a sporting event where players leave behind their combat persona and warfare mindset (see tennis coach Brad Gilbert), and return to the civilized social world.
The Regine Mahaux image above displays new directions in Concept imagery. The visual key to concept/symbolic imagery is to strip everything back except the core idea. The danger with this is that the image can become too abstracted, too generic, lacking any warmth- in effect lacking the human touch, ironic given it’s a handshake. The light and shadow of Mahaux’s image above contextualises the human relationship at the heart of this handshake – the winning, the losing, the shared experience of battle.
Yet because the Handshake is so well used as a public sign of friendship in politics and business where relationships are often pragmatic at best, it has occasionally been the target of artwork on classic pop albums. 1980s electr0-pop band Heaven 17 foregrounded the corporate handshake on the sleeve of Penthouse and Pavement, a kind of musical uptown/downtown narrative.
While Gang of Four (singer Jon King and co-designer of the sleeve is now Managing Director of Storyworldwide, London ) highlight the handshake as the visual ritual that disguises and hides motives and intentions more that it reveals them.
More recently Chevrolet registered the iconic nature of the handshake in the world of the cars salesman by funding an academic study into the most effective kind of handshake. In a press release at the time Chevrolet spokesman Les Turton commented, “It is easy to overlook everyday rituals, but as the handshake is used to complete agreements it is important our staff are well trained so they can pass on trust and reassurance to our customers.” The announcement was accompanied by some instructional illustration. Most of all, by breaking down the handshake into its different components this clever image plays on the fact that we perceive the image of the handshake as a media construction as much as it is an expression of feeling,
It’s why this ad for Ram trucks in the US is particularly interesting as the brand tries to reclaim the Handshake as the sign of an ‘authentic’ frontier spirit. It spells out exactly what a handshake means, the handshake functions as a sign of nostalgia, hearkening back to an idea of ‘old-school’ trust, to the days of the frontier, when the handshake was as meaningful as a legal contract. The narrator contrasts the down-to-earth, ‘manly’ handshake whose symbol of shared values is in contrast with the slippery ethos of corporates. The ad is an effective list of keywords (“a symbol of confidence, honour, trust, an unspoken bond…”), spelling out the meaning of the handshake is just underlining, twice, what we already see from the slo-mo. This the ultimate handshake of Ram trucks, its crunching psychological ‘authenticity’ can only truly be experienced in slow motion.
This ad doesn’t make me want to buy a truck, but it makes me want to shake the hand of Ram, slowly, very slowly, just for the brazen confidence in taking such a familiar visual sign and making the equivalent of a music video celebrating it’s symbolic power. At the same time it’s surprising how little has been done visually with the classic handshake in advertising, it’s pretty much the same as it ever was.
The advertising images that play with the form are immediately striking. This ad for a conference Centre in Legoland, has that recognisable Lego brand-self-confidence to inject some humour by playing with visual expectations. The handshake is such a familiar visual code you’re brain is already filling in the difference before you can say Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon.
And this slightly more obscure ad, only insofar as the visual metaphor works (in Swedish and English clearly) but only fully makes sense when you know the product enables you to strengthen your grip.
And then there’s the remix of the classic Alfred Eisenstaedt VE day photo, substituting the handshake for the kiss, a warning for stubble-faced men without the latest hi-tech shaving gear.
And then there’s fact many advertiser’s allude to the fact that the handshake may be going the same way as ‘Dear’ in email intros. Like this TV bumper for a UK autoparts store.
And this ad for ESPN Radio highlights an instinctive sense among advertisers that in a culture with a taste for shared emotions, where social media makes oversharing the new normal, that the reserved ritual of the traditional handshake doesn’t quite cut it.
And because it’s such a familiar image, it’s worth playing and experimenting with. It’s why this image below is so appealing, your mind fills in the gap between the woman/the dog and the hand at the edge of the frame – barred from touching by the tree. A simple construction that plays on your brains’ need to fill in the absent visual information.
In an increasingly globalized culture it is likely that we we will see more of the handshake, though the ritual has different signals in different parts of the world, where a strong handshake isn’t always appreciated. And in a world that is increasingly informal in the way we communicate with each other, it’s no surprise that we’re seeing companies such as Ram pay homage to the simple Handshake. While the handshake in business imagery comes with connotations of power, or even the conversion of ‘power’ into something more human, the thoughtfully shot handshake combines visual simplicity with emotional richness and narrative depth. Like this ad commemorating the work of the Brazilian Red Cross, created by Ageisobar in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Even without the text, the image by photographer Sergio Buss of these two hands is deeply modest – the handshake as an understated expression of an emotion that needs no words, where any words muddy something essentially humble – the unsung motivation of the red cross volunteer.
This, is a handshake.
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