Stock Images: Effective Marketing Tool or Misleading Advertising?

Home Stager with Staging Diva / Six Elements Inc.

What is a stock image?

An image, photographed and made available by someone else, and then rented or sold to third parties for their own use (generally marketing communications). Some stock images are royalty free and therefore available without a fee.

Stock images (photographs and illustrations) have been used by major corporations and advertisers for years, long before the Internet made digital images available to the masses. It's an effective way to build your marketing message without having to budget for a professional shoot or professional illustration.

Many major advertising agencies will still use stock images in the concepts they present to their clients, but usually once the client is "sold" on the concept, the agency will arrange for a professional shoot so that the client has their own image for their own ads, promotions, websites, etc.

If the image is part of a concept that isn't promoting what the client sells, they may use an actual stock shot in the final marketing materials. So for example, if you were selling hamburgers, you wouldn't buy a stock image of another company's hamburger to use in your ad, though you might buy a stock image of a vacation destination if you were offering your customers the chance to win a vacation when they purchased your product. So the ad might contain the stock image of a beach with the company's own photo of their food.

Sidebar: The reason those advertised burgers rarely look in real life like what you see in their ads is because the "star burger" had a professional team of stylists, food stylists, a high priced photographer, lighting crew and all day to make it look just right. Then someone used a photo editing program to fix anything else that wasn't perfect. Your real life burger is usually cooked from frozen in under a minute in a microwave and slapped together by someone who does that hundreds of times a day, every day for minimum wage.

If you were selling your car, would you run an ad with a different vehicle in the picture? If you were promoting your business would you use a photo of your gorgeous neighbor instead of your own on your "about us" page? And if you did, would the person buy the car when they saw the real thing? Would your client ask "who are you" when you showed up at your apointment? Would everyone be feeling good about themselves in all this?

Use of stock images to promote your home staging or decorating services

It's my belief that as professional home stagers we should not be using stock photos of house interiors or exteriors in our marketing efforts. I know many will disagree with me, especially the people using them or making money selling them to others. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, I'm simply stating mine.

Because what we're selling is our ability to stage or decorate someone's home, I believe that any image we use should be of a room (or house exterior), that we've actually worked on.

When we use an image that we've bought, begged or borrowed from someone else, we are implying (to potential customers) that it is our work because it's showing the service we are selling. That's why in my above example, using a stock shot of a beach to visually illustrate a vacation contest prize is not the same as using one for the actual product you are selling.

Establishing trust and credibility 

In a nation-wide survey of why people buy, "confidence in the company or their service/product," was the number one reason ("price" was down at number 5 in case you're wondering). If a prospect assumes that all the lovely room shots they see on your site, brochure, etc. are your own work and they find out that it isn't, what does that do to your credibility?

If your brochure and front page of your site have gorgeous stock shots and then they go to your portfolio and don't see the same level of quality, what do they think of your portfolio? I think they'll very likely feel like they were getting sucked in by fancy packaging and there isn't anything beneath that. So, their confidence in you has just gone out the window.

It's all relative

If you haven't bought my case for why using stock "decor" images is misleading, consider this.... your own portoflio of before and after photos can only look worse when you mix it in with professionally shot and styled stock images. Because they're juxtaposed together, the contrast in quality is obvious. What might have been a perfectly acceptable portfolio on it's own now looks amateurish.

With every word and image you use in your marketing efforts, you are communicating who you are and what you offer. When there are inconsistencies you only lower the confidence others will have in you, making actually getting hired for your work, infinitely harder.

For all of these reasons I don't use stock images on my two home staging websites and I don't provide staging portfolios as part of the Staging Diva Training Program. Though I do discuss how to go about building your first home staging portfolio as part of course 2 of the program. 


Debra Gould, The Staging Diva
President, Six Elements Inc.

Home Staging expert Debra Gould also known as The Staging Diva is president of Six Elements Inc., a leading home staging company that provides free information to raise the standards in the industry and build awareness amongst homeowners and their real estate agents about the benefits of decorating a house to sell.

After personally staging hundreds of homes and gaining international recognition for her expertise (The Wall Street Journal, CNNMoney, HGTV, Reader's Digest, Woman's Day, MoneySense, CBS Radio, etc.), Debra Gould developed The Staging Diva Program to create opportunities for others to grow their own profitable home staging, real estate enhancement businesses.

Learn more about the Staging Diva Home Staging Training Program






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not listed - Concord, MA

Wow.  Heated debate.  As Craig Schiller says, this is ALL GOOD.  We need healthy debate to improve our industry and make consistent progress.  I would ask my esteemed colleagues to keep the debate healthy, and avoid any comments that move outside the topic and begin to feel personal.

That said, I will register my strong feeling that stock photos are misleading to the consumer.  Unlike many of the examples used in defense of this practice, we are actually selling the very service that is being pictured:  DESIGN.   

To illustrate my point, I will share a story from my advertising days.  On one particular shoot for the introduction of Extra Creamy Cool Whip, by law we were allowed to use fake ice cream for the luscious ice cream sundae (real ice cream melts quite quickly under photographer's lighting), but we were absolutely required by law, no matter how difficult it was, to shoot the REAL Cool Whip, because that was what we were selling.  We stayed in downtown New York City until 2:30 am trying to get that shot.  We had to resume shooting (well overbudget) the next day to finally get the shot. 

We are selling the Cool Whip.  In wide shots.  In close ups. In the "unified look" of our websites.  To use someone else's photography to sell our Cool Whip -- our Staging Design Services - without identifying it as such, is misleading, and possibly unlawful.  It is not that hard.  We all start somewhere.  We have to have confidence in our own abilities.  If you make the commitment to yourself to only use your own work, for every shot on your website, I will believe you will be MORE successful, because you won't have that lingering doubt in the back of your mind knowing that you may have misrepresented your abilities.  RIGHT IS MIGHT!



Jan 25, 2007 05:25 AM #39
Craig Schiller
Trempealeau, WI

Lisa... thanks for sharing your words. Lets just say they are rich and creamy with insight and perspective!


Jan 25, 2007 05:38 AM #40
Darla Gliptis
I personaly no not like being decieved.I recently had to have my two front teeth crowned which was a huge step for me,MY FRONT TEETH. I used a Dentist who came highly recommend.As I sat in his chair directly in front of me was a television with beautiful before and afters shots of real people with real dental problems.After seeing what great work this dentist did I decided to go ahead with the crowns.It wasn't untill he had both of my front teeth ground down to little pegs and i had two weeks of temporary crowns falling off, that I asked the Dentist if what I was watching was his work.He very quietly said"no these are  pictures a friend took for me." I can't tell you how decieved I felt and with something so important to me. The person I was refered by was also in shock.I guess this kind of thing starts with something as simple as home staging pictures and moves onto the real important things in our lives.
Jan 25, 2007 06:52 AM #41
Jody Thulin

I don't believe that the use of stock photos is in the best interest of any home stager.  First of all, everyone that looks at them recognizes them as stock photos.  If anything, they intimidate potential clients as they look at these "too good to be true" representations and think that they cannot possibly afford to hire the stager.  Secondly, as mentioned in earlier blogs, it's just not honest. 

I do understand our constant plight for high quality pictures.  I may have a potential solution.  Just yesterday, I had to meet a photographer that does all of the virtual tours for real estate agents in my community.  He needed access to the house that I had recently staged as the clients moved out of state.  He was acutally hired by the real estate agent to retake the pictures and movie to post of the MLS.  So, I asked him if I could receive a copy of his work on this house.  He charges only $125 and I will receive a professional quality CD with both still pictures and a virtual tour of the home. I can then either post it on my web site or email it to interested clients.  If you too struggle with getting that perfect shot, ask one your local real estate agents who they use for their photo tours of homes. 

Jody Thulin, Sharp Dressed Homes

Jan 25, 2007 07:00 AM #42
Debra Gould
Staging Diva / Six Elements Inc. - Toronto, ON
The Staging Diva

Lisa's Cool Whip example reminds me of my own days in advertising. As in the US, it is illegal in Canada to use an image of something that isn't your product to represent your product. When we used to shoot ads for breakfast cereal, we were allowed to use white glue as a stand-in for the milk (so the cereal wouldn't get soggy during the hours it took for the perfect shot), but we absolutely had to use the actual cereal in the bowl. Imagine 3 adults opening many boxes of cereal to sift thru the flakes and hand pick each and every one that would go into the bowl for the shot. Which brings me back to my first post that started this discussion where I pointed out the difference between using a stock shot to represent something related to your business but not your actual business.

As Lisa said, we're selling our design skills so the design images we show should be our designs!

I'm very happy to see the many practical suggestions Jody, Darla, Gina, Allegra, Sveta, Leah, Judy and others have provided here for how a beginner can go about taking their own shots. Thank you for helping others see there's another way. Standing proudly behind your portfolio is part of going into the world and promoting yourself with the confidence needed to convince others that you're the right person for the job. 

Jan 25, 2007 09:05 AM #43
Kris ONeill
A Cents of Design Inc. - Marietta, GA

Ok, now I have to offer my 2 cents on this, stock photos are fraud.  I have work hard on promoting my company and the last thing I would do is show photos of work I did not do.  How embarassing that would be if I could not "live" up to the stock photos!  Now you are faced with a unhappy client and the risk of losing future referrals.  But most of all you are compromising your integrity.


Jan 25, 2007 11:39 AM #44
Lisa Smith
Smart Move Home Staging & Consulting - Lindsay, ON

WoW we certainly got a reaction to this topic!

So here are my thoughts and confessions on the subject:

Back in the spring I put an advert in the local paper. Being new to advertising, and not knowing how they go about printing things up, I talked with the advertising department.They said, that there was no need to come in "physically" that they could do up an ad and e-me a copy to be submitted upon my approval.

I must say the ad was impressive, a photo of a gorgeous, well appointed room with my business name and number splashed across the front!  Never having placed a business ad before, I figured that this was the way it was done (you know when in Rome?)  Against my better judgement, I ran the ad. It only ran a day, but I kept thinking (and I think someone else posted the same comment) what if someone wants me to duplicate this interior? or compares the work I do to that of the ad? The room on the ad was show-room perfect.

I just felt wrong to show work that was not my own, even if it did made a "lovely backdrop" on which show my business name. The picture in the ad was the work of another designer(s) and photographer(s) and I really felt  it  misleading; Hence, I'll never do that again! Always trust your gut. I want to stand behind my work not someone elses.  I agree with Debra, i'ts about integrity.

Toodles, Lisa


Jan 25, 2007 12:35 PM #45
Craig Schiller
Trempealeau, WI

Let peace reign in the rain.

It is time....

Jan 25, 2007 01:55 PM #46
Pamela Lachance
AKKiRA Realty Inc. Real Estate Brokerage - Embrun, ON

Okay, so now we know that we all have our opinions, and it is sometimes hard to value others'.

So let's take the emotion out of the conversation, and just look at the facts:

Homestaging is a CREATIVE job. You need to be CREATIVE to do it. Homestaging mainly focuses on using the resources that you already have in the home (vacant homes aside, of course). You are being hired for your CREATIVITY.

If you are showcasing pictures that are not your work on your website or portfolio, you are not showing your creativity, you are showing someone else's.  If you do not have pictures to use yet, then don't publish your website until you do. It's so easy to do a few Before & Afters, especially with the plethora of digital cameras out there - how hard can it be to either start in a friend or relative's home, or even your own?  Even close-ups/crop shots can be found! People want to see Before & Afters anyway, I think, because it shows the real house, just like the one that they need help with! When they see the transformation, then they see something to get excited about. If all they see on your site are stunning pictures, then it's harder for them to imagine their house looking like that with their stuff...remember, this is the core thinking behind homestaging in the first place...not leaving the buyer to try and imagine!

If there are photos representing you that aren't yours and you are using them, then just say so. Put a disclaimer to say "photo for reference only/not indicative of my work in any way."    (....ya, right - get the "picture"?)

I think if you were an interior designer, and you wanted to showcase some "looks" on your website or portfolio that inspire you, or are parallel with your tastes/style, then that would be somewhat more appropriate, (as long as it was explicit that this was not your work), since that is exactly what interior designers do - and they encourage their clients to do the same. They sit down with their clients and look at pictures together to see what the client is envisioning for their home.    However, homestaging is not interior decorating/designing to live in - it's about transforming someone's home (sentimental) to a house (product).  It is a CREATIVE marketing strategy

The sore spot in this debate seems to be around the start-up of the business. The old need-experience-to -get-experience dilemma. We all have a starting point. You wouldn't go for a job interview for a writing job with other people's CREATIVITY in your portfolio to get the job, even if you thought very highly about it.  There have been so many logical examples given in these posts about how/why clients might feel duped. So, if you're just starting out, like so many of us, stay true to yourself (and your clients). Do those first few pictures yourself, without relying on someone else's creativity. Be confident, you can do it - that's why you're in this business - you're CREATIVE!!!

...join us next week, when we discuss the why/why not of borrowing other people's raving testimonials.

....sorry, couldn't resist.  C'mon people, let's play nicely together and if you feel "offended", becareful of your words....let's treat each other like we treat our customers.

Thank you, Debra, for having the courage to challenge us to dig deep and ensure our values are intact. We need these kinds of "whaddya thinks" ... that's what helps us to grow...up.



Jan 25, 2007 02:09 PM #47
Debra Gould
Staging Diva / Six Elements Inc. - Toronto, ON
The Staging Diva

Wow, I'm blown away to read these last few posts and very proud to see that you've all figured out how to promote your businesses without letting your integrity slide.

Thanks Lisa for bravely sharing your story about running your first ad. I think it's a story many could relate to. We all learn and grow as we build our businesses, in fact I consider "personal growth" one of the main attractions of being an entrepreneur— right up there with "personal freedom and control over my time" and the financial rewards. But that's a subject for another day.

Kris is a great example of how a new stager can have early success without resorting to misrepresenting their work. Within only 6 months of starting her business she'll be decorating a room for a show on HGTV and was written up in her local paper! Imagine how she'd feel with a TV show taping coming up if they'd hired her on the strength of someone else's photos! Instead she knows she has this success because of the time and effort that she put into it.

Kind of like comparing the feeling you have when you get an A on a university term paper you wrote and researched, versus getting an A for the term paper you bought off the Internet. Oh yeah, they kick you out of school for doing it the easy way!


Jan 25, 2007 04:11 PM #48
Cindy Lin
Staged4more School of Home Staging - South San Francisco, CA
Host, The Home Staging Show podcast

when i first was doing my own website i put the photos up because it was permitted by stagedhomes. but then judy on the rain pointed them out to me that she can tell those were stagedhomes' i took them down immidately. and meekishly put up the one house that i had done from my training. but from then i agressively stage other homes both for free and regular jobs and my gallery started to grow from there.

well, the point of my story is that as a consumer who is not familiar with the home selling process, about staging or bascially just someone who is not familar in the staging field, won't really know the difference between stock photos or my real work. judy was able to tell they were stagedhomes's photos because she knows many asp stagers and have seen many of them on different sites.

that's when i stopped using stock photos or work that i was not personally involved in.

please stop fighting. we all have opinions. we are all individuals. that's why we have different opinions. in my opinion is that if you feel what is right for your business, you just need to answer to yourself and your clients and be able to back them up. it's your decision. i personally don't do stock photos because if the clients got upset because my work didn't look like the show room in the magazine, i don't really want to deal with that hairy situation. (hello, i am no magician for champagne taste on beer budget)




i love staging and all things staging!

i stage to sell, live & work in san francisco bay area 


Jan 25, 2007 04:19 PM #49
Jessica Hughes
Ambiance Staging - Boulder, CO

Debra ~  I think that EVERY ONE of us who posted here can say that we found a way to promote our business without letting our integrity slide.   So thanks for the nod and the support for ALL OF US. :) I'm glad you made that comment because I felt that the original post was bordering on negative selling tactics, which I feel is a form of advertising that lacks integrity. 

Judy ~ I find it interesting, given what you said, that you have stock images in a band across the top of your site.  I'm curious as to how you can hold such strong views against stock images?  Maybe I'm mistaken, and if so, I apologise.  Perhaps you didn't realize how 'knit-picky' this post had become. 

Interesting thought about plastic surgeons:  When I look at a newspaper advert or website (not portfolio) of of a plastic surgeon, I am looking at BEAUTIFUL MODELS who may or may not have had plastic surgery almost certainly not with that particular surgeon.  They are selling the concept.   

"If you get a nose job, you'll suddenly become incredibly skinny, grow georgous blonde hair and some hunk of a man will hang on your arm for forever after."

Are they manipulating?  Misleading?  Perhaps, but if they put up a photo of a 50's housewife who got a face lift  from them but still had 3 chins as their mascot I think they would certainly garner less business as a result.  But ALL advertising is designed to subtly manipulate our emotions.  **If you buy this you'll be incredibly happy for the rest of your life, it will be life transforming!!** If you take this cough medicine you will feel instantly better and ready to TAKE ON THE WORLD! This is a very American trait.  When living in England for 5 years working as the Managing Director of a packaging firm I had to coordinate advertisements for many different European countries.  Each one required a different spin.  In England the same cough medicine will merely:  Help you feel a smidge better and hopefully get you through the day.

From reading the resposes everyone here agrees that the use of stock images in one's portfolio is misleading.  And realtors/homeowners should do their due diligence when deciding on a stager:  make sure you see a portfolio and ask them to verify that it is their own work!


Jan 26, 2007 02:22 AM #50
Colleen Ernewein, Home Impressions Staging and Decorating

I have only begun my staging business in the last 6 months.  Since I did not have the pictures that I needed to create a portfolio, I took the time and staged rooms in my home that demonstrated how small changes can make big differences, I also helped my church "stage" rooms for upcoming events,  and helped friends redecorate rooms in their homes to show my ability.

While I show my portfolio, it gives me such pleasure to hear how impressed people are with my own work.  It would not be very fun, or easy to describe pictures that I could not explain, or take credit for.

I must say that using stock pictures to build my portfolio would be fraudulent to myself, and to my customers.   They are hiring me based on MY work.  If I posted pictures that were not my own, and my clients found this out, I am sure that my credibility would deteriorate extremely.  Since word of mouth is the best source of advertising, my personal thought would be that I must always be upfront and truthful with my clients at all times.


Jan 26, 2007 02:58 AM #51
Laurie A. Mahoney

I know I may be a little late in getting in on this discussion as I see it has been going on for a while now.

 A while back I wanted to send out post cards to realtors informing them of my home staging business.  I went on line to order these post cards.  As I went through some of the post card choices I came upon some clip art that could be used along with the cards.  One of the images of was a very simple dining room setting.  It was something I knew I could do on my own.  To be able to include this with my post card seemed much more professional than having the card on its own or including my amateur shots.  I didn't even know how to go about sending my images to the web site.  So, in the interest of getting this done quickly I went ahead and placed the order.

 When I finally did receive the post cards I have to say I was very pleased with the outcome and how professional it looked.   I sent out a couple of mailings and I also went to open houses to hand them out.  Each time  I used these cards to promote my business I felt less and less confident about doing so.  I dreaded the day that someone ask if this was my work. I realized at this point I was really being deceptive about who I was and didn't want to start a relationship with anyone that way. I always knew I would never be able to lie and say it was my work. 

 I now sit with over 250 of these beautiful post cards as a reminder to not sell myself short and be true to who I am.

This is just a lesson to me that I wanted to share, not a judgement of anyone else who decides to use other images to accent their web pages, etc.  It is, after all, such a personal decision.


Jan 28, 2007 12:07 PM #52
Debra Gould
Staging Diva / Six Elements Inc. - Toronto, ON
The Staging Diva

Laurie, thanks for sharing that story about the postcards as I know others will learn from it. I have to point out how interesting it is that you assumed your own photos were too "amateur." On the contrary. Your years as an Ethan Allen photo stylist shows in your work.

I too have my own stack of postcards that I won't give out. But for different reasons. Mine are a beautiful reminder of the folly of putting your rates on anything you're ordering in a large quantity! But that's a whole other subject!



Jan 29, 2007 03:20 AM #53
Lori Kim Polk
Premiere Home Staging : Home Staging Services - Roseville, CA
Home Stager - Roseville, Sacramento

I have been going through this blog and have been trying to find a "positive" to all this.  Maybe it is my "lets work this out attitude" that has taken hold.  I just joined this wonderful AR group and I am so happy that I did.  Maybe what we can say about Stock Photos is that they are there for a reason... they are there to buy. They are like candy in a candy store and we really can't regulate that.  What we can do is..... yes, speak for ourselves on the topic... we are all entitled to an opinion, but........ for the people who choose to use these photos (sounds like new Stagers)...... Could you capture the same "look" using your own things and take your own picture.  Just a thought.  Some of those pictures are good. I too have tried to "capture" the look........ we all do that anyway in a sublime way, when we see a look that we like.  Those of us that have been Staging for awhile can get those great shots sometimes, but it does take time, use of a good camera, and luck:) My site is all my work.

All the Best Staging to you,


Artful Journey Designs and Staging

Feb 24, 2007 01:20 PM #54
Isabel Gomes, Gomes Design. London, ON

I thought I was seeing things.  If I see repeats of photos and portfolios, them I am sure Realtors and potential clients do too.  Not a good impression on the individual or industry. 


Apr 19, 2007 02:12 AM #55
Minnesota Home Staging Firm, Minnesota
Minnesota Home Staging Network~ MN's Top Home Staging Firm - Inver Grove Heights, MN

I have opinions on most everything. This one is a tough one as I can see the need for new stagers to have trouble coming up with their own great shots. Not only do the new the place (although ones own home workes well for that - HA!) but as many have said great lighting, photography, photo editors etc. I must admit our current site has our own work for our Before and Afters (although for the photography, lighting, phot editors reasons I mentioned they are VERY bad) but there are some stock photos on it which we wanted for a more professional looking site. See for yourself -

I am happy to say we have a new (hopefully even better and more beautiful) website already in the works that will feature all of our own work and no stock photos. I don't feel stock photos are misrepresenting yourselves as long as it's not posted in the before and after section. Do people really think the home on the lake on our "Stylish Services" page is one we staged? Probably not. I live in Minnesota and we don't have mountains here :)  We simply chose it so that the color scheme would look nice and flow together. We didn't have pictures of exteriors of homes in that particular shade - HA!  At least not we probably do but can't say we've had the time to color code our pictures yet. Some day!

Anyway, I must say that I love, love, love, Craig for his ability to get in there and try to settle things down when it seems things might be getting a bit too whipped up. Great topic...and great discussion. Let's see if we can all keep a nice tone - although that being said - things written in an email or blog can EASILY be mis-understood. 

All the best to you all - whether you have the same opinion as mine or not :) If you have time, check back in a month to see the all new site. I can't sleep I'm so excited!!!


Sep 07, 2007 04:40 PM #56
Minnesota Home Staging Firm, Minnesota
Minnesota Home Staging Network~ MN's Top Home Staging Firm - Inver Grove Heights, MN
Wow - and how do I always miss these debates? I see this was from January???
Sep 07, 2007 04:43 PM #57
Minnesota Home Staging Firm, Minnesota
Minnesota Home Staging Network~ MN's Top Home Staging Firm - Inver Grove Heights, MN

So I had to check back to my response on your blog. Just wanted to make sure nothing I wrote would have offended. Nope...I don't think it could have been miscontrued but I do see the others you were possibly talking about.

Keep your chin up...and keep plugging along. Sometimes people need to put others down to make themselves feel like more of a person.

Oct 04, 2007 02:37 PM #58
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