Why Use Metaphors in Advertising?

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Advertising is a form of communication meant to inform and persuade a target audience to purchase a specific product or service. Advertisers use print, broadcast, and electronic media to try to convey their messages to consumers. These messages should highlight key selling points that will appeal to the target audience and stimulate an interest in the product or service. One way to do this is to use metaphors in advertising.

What is a Metaphor?

A metaphor is “the comparison of the parts of one experience to the parts of another experience” (Morgan and Reichert 1999). “Metaphors make the conceptual, tangible” (Jones 2008). They can illustrate ideas, simplify complex subjects, and elicit responses. As part of a cognitive reasoning process (using learned experiences to make inferences, decisions, or draw conclusions), they stimulate curiosity and result in deeper processing (Meek 2007).

Why Use Metaphors in Advertising?

Metaphors can convey brand meaning, create brand recognition, and develop brand personality. Because “advertising has to work in the wink of an eye,” advertisers must find ways to grab consumers’ attention and convey their messages quickly (Jones 2008). Metaphors do this by creating a relationship between consumers’ knowledge and the advertisers’ products or services. Moreover, metaphors take more time to process and comprehend, affecting memory and resulting in a slight advantage in recall and perception. Brand personality links human characteristics with a brand, establishing a unique identity for that brand (Ang and Lim 2006). This builds trust and loyalty, evokes emotions, and enhances consumer preferences. Traditionally, customer relationship management (CRM) research focused on data mining rather than developing personal or emotional connections, but emerging research has shown it is the emotional investment that keeps the customer coming back. A loyal customer simply shows a behavior trait, but a committed customer establishes a relationship with a brand based on trust one feature of what is referred to in marketing as the “Trust-Based Consumer Model.” The type of resulting loyalty is referred to as “attitudinal loyalty” and is comprised of a customer’s beliefs, feelings, and intentions toward a brand (Story and Hess 2006).

There are five dimensions of brand personality: (1) sincerity, which conveys warmth and acceptance; (2) excitement, which conveys social interaction, energy, and activity; (3) competence, which conveys security and dependability; (4) sophistication, which conveys class and charm; and (5) ruggedness, which conveys masculinity and strength (Ang and Lim 2006).

Metaphors are an extremely powerful tool. Because they are an indirect means of persuasion, and subject to interpreting by the consumer, advertisers must be aware of how their message could be interpreted. Deliberately misleading a consumer, whether directly or indirectly, can lead to ethical and legal issues. Advertisers must also consider the types of responses their ads will elicit. Responses may be positive, negative, or offensive (Nanos 2007).

Types of Advertising Metaphors.

Metaphors can be visual or verbal, abstract or concrete. Because verbal metaphors require consumers to create their own images, they do not convey as precise a message as visual metaphors. Abstract metaphors relate to intangible characteristics or feelings while concrete metaphors are grounded in sensory perception (characteristics experienced through the five senses). Neither may be entirely effective for communicating the intended message; however, many studies show that reinforcing a concrete metaphor with a visual image will raise the effectiveness (See Lagerwerf and Meijers 2008; and Morgan and Reichert 1999).

Visual metaphors can be unanchored or anchored. Unanchored visual metaphors appear without a headline, as in Figure 1-1. Anchored metaphors appear in conjunction with a direct headline, as in Figure 1-2. An anchored metaphor limits consumers’ inference because the direct headline causes them to draw a tentative conclusion and stops the cognitive process, where an unanchored metaphor allows consumers to generate many inferences. These inferences are relative to the openness (many alternative interpretations) of the advertisement and are generally positive (McQuarrie and Phillips 1998).

Metaphors vary in openness. An unanchored metaphor will be more open than an anchored metaphor, so ads containing verbal metaphors will have more responses than verbal literal ads (those with a direct headline or message). Only unanchored visual metaphors provoke interactions spontaneously at the time of ad exposure, so the “lack of constraints on the interpretations is the source of persuasive advantage” (McQuarrie and Phillips 1998).

How We Process Visual Metaphors.

To resolve an advertising metaphor, a consumer must draw inferences between two related elements. Visual elements (i.e. pictures and symbols) are superior to words and enhance recall. The visual complexities of the elements and how they might be interpreted are distinguished using three conceptual combinations: (1) juxtaposition — two visual elements are side by side in the image, suggesting an association between the them; (2) fusion — two visual elements are combined in one image, suggesting similarity; and (3) replacement – only one of the elements is visible; interpreting the image refers to the other element, suggesting opposition among them, that one is not like the other (Lagerwerf and Meijers 2008). Imagery in advertising can be extremely powerful. For example, associating two unrelated objects through pictures, such as healthy young adults and cigarettes, causes viewers to take the association for granted without asking questions. These subconscious inferences and the ambiguity of pictures in advertising enhance their persuasiveness.

Dr. Gerald Zaltman has studied how consumers process and understand a message. He is convinced that non-verbal communication is the key to understanding, influencing, and predicting consumers thinking and behavior buying patterns. After extensive research, he created a research tool, ZMAT, that uses metaphors to not only influence consumer behavior and thinking but drives them to contemplate a purchase (Zaltman and 1995).

Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMAT).

ZMAT are mental models based on deep metaphors that find “expression in products that satisfy deeply held consumer needs and wants” (Legace 2008). These needs are largely unconscious and universal. By understanding these needs and wants, advertisers can employ visual and other sensory images to drive consumers’ thinking and behavior and can better segment markets by identifying a common denominator.


Advertisers can communicate with consumers using metaphors. Metaphors should be open and unanchored to allow for better consumer reception and persuasion. A properly designed metaphoric advertisement will generate many, distinct, positive inferences about a brand, improve recall, and contribute to brand meaning, recognition, and personality. Brand personality arouses emotions and produces loyal, committed customers. Deep metaphors contribute to this personal bond by stimulating the “deeper” emotional needs of consumers. By incorporating metaphors into the marketing mix through advertising and research, marketers can make better decisions about what products or services to offer and influence consumer buying behavior.


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Meek, Larissa. (6 Aug 2007). Visual Metaphors: 7 Rockstar Examples On The Web. Retrieved February 6, 2009, from http://www.devlounge.net/articles/visual-metaphors-7-rockstar-examples-on-the-web.

Morgan, Susan E. and Tom Reichert. (1999). The Message Is In The Metaphor: Assessing The Comprehension Of Metaphors In Advertisements. Journal of Advertising, 28(4), 1-12.  Retrieved January 30, 2009, from Research Library database. (Document ID: 57953813).

Nanos, Janelle. (15 Oct. 2007). Bran Identity. Slate. Retrieved February 6, 2009 from http://www.slate.com/id/2175772 .

Story, John and Jeff Hess. (2006). Segmenting Customer-Brand Relations: Beyond The Personal Relationship Metaphor. The Journal of Consumer Marketing, 23(7), 406-413.  Retrieved February 2, 2009, from Research Library database. (Document ID: 1160873951).

Twitchell, James B. (c2000). 20 Ads That Shook The World. (1sth ed.). New York:Crown Publishers.

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