Should CGI come with a warning?

Image retouch is widely used to manipulate and enhance a commercial photograph. But when that goes further, with full CGI, where images are produced without a camera, photographer, using wire-frames and rendering, can you trust what you see? More importantly, what would the consumer think if they knew the image was a representation of a product and not the real thing?

In the early days of CGI, it was widely used by architects and builders to give a representation of a building or development. It was obviously computer generated and the end user accepted the wooden looking buildings and false looking scenery, and just went with it as a practical and effective way to show a proposed build in-situ.

But today, with the advancement of hardware, software and expertise, CGI can be used to completely replicate a still image of any scene and any product. And with prices reducing, it is becoming an attractive alternative to actual photography. It has to be said that when done well, the quality and realism can be as good as taking a photograph of the real thing, and many experienced photographers will even admit its difficult tell the difference.

CGI is used in many different ways. Used in video games gamers accept that when they are shooting aliens on a space ship, what they are seeing isn’t real, but it enhances their experience. And in movies where the action is set in a fantasy world, or there are dinosaurs roaming the landscape, it’s all fantastically realistic but the viewer is in no doubt that the special effects are computer generated.

But what happens when CGI is taken out of the entertainment context and used to replicate a product in a sales or marketing context, as part of a plan to get the customer to buy the product that has been replicated? Regardless of the quality of the CGI image, the general public won’t know or even assume that what they are looking at is actually a computer-generated image and not a real photograph.

Today, advertisers work under very strict codes of conduct, being careful not to make claims of their client’s products and brands that could be misleading. Could it be said in the use of CGI, that customers are being misled – thinking they are looking at a photograph when it is really only a digital representation of the product they are being sold? Would you as a consumer want to know if the image was a real photo, or CGI?

To be fair to the people commissioning CGI images, there isn’t a motivation to mislead or mis-sell, CGI is generally commissioned for cost or logistical reasons; it can save expensive shipments of the products needed to be shot in a room-set, or it can easily generate multiple images to show colour changes, and allow the constant updating of those images to keep up-to date with range changes.

Customers buy from brands that they trust, but images are powerful things and play a huge part in the decision making process when customers are buying from the internet, catalogues or advertisements. In the interests of those customers, there are a number of questions to be asked here:

  • Are customers really aware that CGI is used to generate ‘photographs’ that are showing products that they are being asked to buy?
  • If the consumer understood the image they were looking at was CGI, would this affect their trust in what they were seeing?
  • Should there be some industry code of practice, making consumers aware when they are looking at a CGI image?
  • Do computer generated images need some sort of watermark, highlighting the image is a CGI and not a photograph?

We will be taking this article to a number of forums. As always your comments are welcome and we will publish comments that we receive at a later date.

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