Mouldy whopper

Alt Text Ingrain: Behind the mission to make pictures more accessible

RNIB's director of brand Martin Wingfield and MullenLowe's CCO Nicky Bullard talk through their push for Alt Text to be universally adopted

By jeremy lee

We're all familiar with the corny old aphorism that 'a picture paints a thousand words'. But for the estimated two million people in the UK (and over two billion globally) with sight loss the opposite is true - it's not pictures they want, it's words.

This is why The Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) and MullenLowe are the driving force behind an initiative to encourage more institutions, including advertisers, to include Alt Text - online image descriptions that can be read aloud by a screen reader - in their campaigns.

For those not aware, Alt (Alternative) Text is used by digital channels to explain the meaning or context of an image.

As part of the push, the two organisations have convinced the organisers of Cannes Lions to introduce a new category, which is set to premiere at next year's festival, celebrating the best use of Alt Text in ads.

We've had some great successes, we're getting brands to do it.

Martin Wingfield. director of brand for the RNIB

MullenLowe and RNIB have been working together on promoting Alt Text for some months. In May, they launched a partnership with Margate art gallery Turner Contemporary. This acknowledged the issue faced by landscape painter J. M. W. Turner, who suffered from sight loss in later life. As part of Global Accessibility Awareness Day, the initiative involved the creation of an image description of the iconic Sir Antony Gormley statue, ‘Another Time’, on Margate Beach, opposite the gallery.

The campaign came about thanks to the drive and chutzpah of Nicky Bullard, the group CCO at MullenLowe, who reached out to RNIB's director of brand Martin Wingfield on LinkedIn after one of her teams - Jane Briers and Dave Cornmell came up with the idea of 'Alt alts'. Running in March, this would focus on out-of-home communications featuring written descriptions of famous images that passers-by then have to guess.

"It's fair to say I get a few creative agencies saying 'I have an idea'. And eight times out of 10 they're not very good, or they're stereotypical kind of takes on blind things. But this was interesting," explains Wingfield.

Bullard followed up by sharing what she describes as "a very basic deck" and the germ of an idea was sown.

Wingfield continues: "It was a very easy thing to like, because it was so simple. It didn't involve months of planning or any cost or complexity. And for a long time, we've talked about image descriptions or alt text, just encouraging people to do it. But we've never really taken the step. And so it was a great idea that we could infuse across so many different aspects of our work."

The fact that just six per cent of images use Alt Text (and most of it as a badly-written afterthought) spurred them on, culminating in the new Cannes Lions award for the Best Use of Alt Text Copywriting on an ad. As part of the campaign, the Palais des Festivals in Cannes was plastered with examples of ads with Alt Text descriptions to raise awareness of how Alt Text should be used and the new award. These included famous campaigns such as 'Fearless Girl' and 'Mouldy Whopper'.

Bullard says: "I think the thing from the original 'Alt Alts' campaign was when we started doing those image searches - all those images that have had such an impact on our lives and might have changed our minds or changed the government or whatever - you think how you felt when you saw that image. And it could be funny, or moved you but if you're blind or partially sighted, you're not ever having that experience. And no one's bothered to put that in writing."

Bullard now wants to normalise the process within ads - which to copywriters should be a dream brief.

Advertisers also need to be committed to making the practice standard place and MullenLowe client Unilever has become an early adopter. The pair ran an exhibition in Cannes in the Carlton Hotel to show how it can be done and to get clients thinking about it.

"We've had all sorts of clients coming in to get thinking about it and insisting that their agencies do it. That's a double win," says Bullard.

And there's plenty of work still to be done - Wingfield says that, to date, the use of Alt Text has not been on the agenda of many advertisers. But what the RNIB social media team has done is gently call out brands and people for not describing alt texts. "We've had some great successes, we're getting brands to do it," he says.

Greggs is one advertiser that he singled out for responding well. And now, the Cannes Lions initiative should galvanise more marketers to improve the accessibility of their ads, ensuring that writing Alt Text becomes a natural part of campaign creation.

Bullard says that some advertisers are going to make Alt Text a mandatory part of their briefs (and the RNIB is offering help and guidelines to help agencies write it), but in reality, the hope is that it should be something that allows copywriters to stretch their talents in a new area, while also making ads accessible and enjoyable to a currently disenfranchised sector of society. Winning awards as a tool of encouragement should not be needed.

This initiative will prove that for the best copywriters, every beautiful picture does not need a thousand words in Alt Text.


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