A Review and biometric analyses of affective photographs in sustainability reporting – implications for impression management
Companies increasingly use photographs in sustainability reports (SRs). While photographs are useful in conveying complex messages, they may also be used to construct a favourable corporate image and enhance an organisation’s reputation. This effort at impression management (IM) is particularly relevant to photographs, because they are eye-catching, attracting more attention than text, and because they can evoke emotions in individuals through carefully chosen content. While SRs have been extensively researched, few studies examine if photographs influence the judgement of SRs users. Therefore, this thesis aims to provide a holistic analysis of the use of photographs in SRs and their impact on the judgements of users. To achieve this aim, this thesis by publication includes three studies.
Motivated by the lack of understanding of the use of photographs in SRs, the first study (Chapter 2) examines the features of photographs aimed at capturing attention and evoking specific emotions. Using content analysis, the study shows that photographs in SRs are often large with a horizontal orientation to capture attention, and show content viewed at eye level and in either medium or close-up shots to engage viewers. Further, the photographs incorporate specific themes, depicting, for example, people, technology, or nature. These themes are used to predominately evoke positive emotions of awe, nurturance, pride, amusement, and attachment. Chapter 2 contributes to the thesis by identifying features that can be used for IM.
These findings of Chapter 2 suggest that readers may infer meanings from photographs according to the specific emotions the photograph seeks to evoke. Motivated by the scarcity of research on emotional reactions to photographs in SRs, the second study (Chapter 3) examines whether emotions conveyed through photographs in SRs influence users’ valence and arousal reactions. Using an online questionnaire, the study’s results suggest that various positive and negative emotions are dominantly evoked such as awe, shame, pride, contentment, and sympathy. Additionally, utilising eye-tracking and galvanic skin response technologies in a laboratory setting, the study’s results provide evidence that photographs trigger intense subconscious emotional reactions. Chapter 3 contributes to the thesis by providing novel evidence that photographs do more than depict symbolic messages, rather they evoke emotions, hence they influence readers’ judgements.
Building on these findings, the third study (Chapter 4) examines whether an emotionallyloaded photograph influences readers’ judgements of corporate reputation. The study undertakes an experiment, utilising eye-tracking and automated-facial expression analysis software, finding that an emotionally-loaded photograph of a CEO captures attention. Further, users of SRs evaluate corporate reputation more favourably if pride is elicited in photographs through both facial expression and body language.
Taken together, the findings of the three studies provide valuable insights into the issues associated with the use of photographs in SRs. The findings of this thesis have implications for preparers and users of SRs. Specifically, the findings can help the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) shape new reporting practices, as well as make users aware that photographs may be used in SRs to evoke emotions. In doing so they may be misused, especially in the absence of reporting guidelines. The lack of guidance is perhaps because photographs are not recognised as able to influence users, or, more likely, there may be a general lack of understanding of how this knowledge can be applied in sustainability reporting. The thesis therefore represents an important step in developing a better understanding of how photographs convey meaning, accurately or otherwise.