Metaphor in Advertising

Gerald Zaltman & Dara MacCaba. Handbook of Advertising. Editor: Gerard J Tellis & Tim Ambler. Sage Publications. 2007.

Recent years have seen many significant advances in the understanding of human cognition and behaviour. Many people have suggested that much current thinking about advertising (and marketing generally) is incomplete or even incorrect since it does not incorporate many of these advances (Schultz, 2005). This chapter provides an overview of important, recent scientific developments about the mind with particular emphasis on the central role of metaphor in cognition and advertising. After all, advertising itself is a representation in one form of what a firm offers in another form. Of course, the idea that metaphor is important in communications including advertising is not new. However, the mechanisms whereby metaphor exerts influence has received relatively little attention in marketing while at the same time there have been important advances in linguistics and the cognitive sciences in understanding metaphor functioning.

Narrowly construed, metaphor is the representation of one thing in terms of another, e.g., the use of a butterfly in a pharmaceutical ad to convey the idea of a gentle, pleasing transformation produced by a branded sleep medication. Broadly construed, which is how the term metaphor is used in this chapter, it includes all non-literal representations such as use of the term “up” to represent an emotional state or idiomatic expressions such as “let sleeping dogs lie” to suggest caution about further exploring an issue. Many metaphors are described as “dead” since they have become so much a part of everyday conversation. But dead metaphors are very powerful in their afterlife since their effects are more subtle (Lackoff and Johnson, 1999; Kovecses, 2002). It has been suggested elsewhere that only a small proportion of all thought is ever expressed in direct, literal ways (Mithen, 2006).

While metaphors are non-literal expressions it is important to note that they also involve a re-presentation. Both a butterfly and a food blender symbolize transformation, but each has special meanings (gentle versus forceful) that carry over or extend beyond the thought being conveyed. As a result of this carry over, the intended thought may be subtly yet significantly changed by virtue of the metaphor used; it is re-presented differently by different metaphors. For example, a particular Ford vehicle is understood very differently when it is represented by a wild horse in its name (Mustang) than when the exact same vehicle is represented by another creature in its name, e.g., the Ford Rhinoceros or Ford Bee.

Thus, in addition to metaphor’s role in helping to convey information about a particular productor service’s attributes and functions, it also involves the creation of new ideas beyond those unique to the metaphor or to the product or service being advertised. This process whereby new ideas are formed as ideas from two separate domains such as a Ford vehicle and a wild horse are brought together is called conceptual blending. Conceptual blending is central to the use of metaphors in advertising and to the co-creation of meaning (Fauconnier and Turner, 2002). Conceptual blending is part of the imaginative process. This makes it central to the processes in which consumers create meaningful stories using a blend of advertising stimuli and their own knowledge.

The chapter explores the following issues from an advertising perspective:

  • The Role of Metaphor in Cognition
  • Metaphor and Emotion
  • The Role of Metaphor and Memory
  • The Use of Metaphor in Advertising Research.

Advertising practitioners and researchers are increasingly aware of the importance of unconscious processes, especially those involving metaphor, and of the limitations of traditional methods in providing insight about these processes. The ideas developed here will be helpful as the industry continues to grapple with these issues. The insights offered should assist in the development of engaging communications and in assessing their impact.

As we shall see, metaphor plays a critical role in cognition or ways of knowing, thinking and representing ideas. While other chapters in this volume address emotion and ad evaluations in more detail, we also address emotion and the evaluation of advertising from the perspective of metaphor processing. Of special interest is the strong association between memory and emotion. This association is important since for most advertising to be effective, it must have an enduring emotional impact among consumers. Metaphor is critical in mediating between emotion and memory and hence in establishing enduring impact on consumers especially as they create their own meanings or stories based on advertising stimuli. As we shall see, memory itself is often malleable and reconstructive and metaphors (again, broadly construed) are special devices whereby changes in memory can be fostered, partly through conceptual blending. This is especially the case when metaphors introduce or tap into relevant emotions. All of this has important implications for conducting both formative and summative evaluative advertising research.

The Role of Metaphor in Cognition

The brain is both a representational and connecting organ. Our senses, for instance, acquire information in one form of energy, e.g., light or sound waves, which are then converted and re-presented as other forms of energy by neural systems involving multiple brain sites. Neural associations among these separate sites create yet another representation, e.g., the representation of a face as if it were displayed in one place in the brain when in fact different elements of a face are registered in different brain sites. As Antonio Damasio (2003) notes:

“The neural patterns and the corresponding mental images of the objects and events outside the brain are creations of the brain related to the reality that prompts their creation rather than passive mirror images reflecting that reality.”

What the brain records as a foundation for our experience is simply a metaphor, a re-presentation of an external object or event in another form in various regions of the brain. Because people are so biologically similar they construct similar neural patterns. This, in turn, creates the illusion that we have recorded an accurate picture of an external reality rather than a created version of it.

Internal interpretative processes are very active as we create versions of external realities. Interpretative patterns, often called frames, help us process this information and determine which pieces most merit our conscious attention. Frames are very powerful. They determine what information does and does not capture our further attention (both conscious and unconscious), how that information isprocessed, and how werespond to it (Lakoff, 2004; Lakoff and Jonson, 2004; Velde, 2004). Frames, therefore, determine what we approach and avoid, the stimuli that capture our attention, and the assumptions we automatically generate to give affective meaning to our experiences. Frames are so powerful that facts suggesting a frame is incorrect will tend to be ignored and frames that work to our disadvantage will sometimes prevail over self interest (Lakoff, 2004).

Of special interest here is a type of frame called a “deep metaphor.” These are fundamental ways of sensing and representing external realities. For example, some consumers may frame their overall experience as shoppers in terms of a journey while others may frame it in terms of force involving a contest or tug of war between sellers and buyers. These basic frames are automatic, generally unconscious, and yet very important for reasons just noted. In order to communicate effectively, it is necessary to know what frames an audience uses for the topic at hand and which elements of those frames need to be reinforced and which need to be changed. It is also necessary to know what activates the frames in positive and negative ways. For example, having a balanced financial portfolio is particularly important to some investors. A brochure showing a person holding a balancing pole while walking a tightrope across a deep chasm to suggest the protection offered by a balanced financial portfolio indeed activates the deep metaphor of balance. But in one concept test it turned out that for some investors this actually heightened feelings of insecurity and hence activated the deep metaphor in its negative state of imbalance. This produced avoidant tendencies with respect to seeking help from an advisor, just the opposite of the brochure’s intent.

In lower mammals, cognitive maps are created by the hippocampus to represent the self in space; in humans, the parietal lobes which evolved from the hippocampus draw on our bodily experiences and use these experiences metaphorically as the basis for understanding. As one neuroscientist explains (Damasio, 1994):

“… our very own organism rather than some absolute external reality is used as the ground reference for the constructions we make about the world around us … our most refined thoughts and best actions, our greatest joys and deepest sorrows, use the body as a yardstick.”

Metaphors, then, are not merely convenient devices for describing experience. Every time we use expressions such as “I see what you mean,” “his words touched me” or “let me walk you through this problem” we are leveraging shared physical experiences to communicate abstract concepts and ideas not directly related to the sensory or motor systems being employed as metaphors. These physical experiences are key components of deep metaphors which are hardwired through the process of embodied cognition (Gallagher, 2005; Thompson and Rosch, 1991). In this way, metaphors are much like emotions; they determine the way we perceive our world, formulate abstract thoughts, and enable us to communicate experiences through common language and framings often based on shared bodily experiences. Of course, many metaphors such as the reference to a “yardstick” in the above quote do not use the body as a referent.

The power of metaphors in communicating experiences is reflected in the fact that people use them at a rate of about five per minute of speech. For instance, we use the deep metaphor of Resource when we talk about “saving time,” “investing time” or “spending time.” For a company like Rolex, understanding the metaphors people use to think about time is extremely important. Many of the most successful brands make use of metaphors in their advertising in communicating a brand idea by means of shared physical experiences, real or imagined. In Figure 2.5.1, the Nike advertisement invites us to use our associations with running and with air to imagine what it would be like to experience both at the same time using their brand of sneakers. This results in a new idea or blend – the experience of Freedom.

Metaphor and Emotion

There has been renewed interest in the role of emotions in advertising. An example is The Advertising Research Foundation’s project on Emotion in Advertising. This is an ongoing collaborative effort involving leading advertising research companies and national advertisers who are exploring ways of identifying and measuring the emotional content of ads and relating that content to the ad’s apparent effectiveness. One unambiguous finding that has emerged in a comparison of ads judged to be especially effective and those judged to be much less so is that the ability of an ad to elicit emotional responses is predictive of its effectiveness.

In fact, the importance of emotion in all human thought including advertising is well established (if often ignored) (Lowenstein and Lerner, 2003). Kovecses (2000) sums up the position of cognitive linguists on this issue: “… it is impossible to conceptualize most aspects of the emotions in other than metaphorical terms.” Metaphor is central to understanding and leveraging emotions and is therefore of special importance in research relating to the development and evaluation of advertising strategies and executions. Emotional language is largely figurative or metaphorical. Figurative speech not only reveals emotions and helps us understand them but can create emotional experiences as well.

Hence, again, the importance of metaphor in conducting research to identify brand and category relevant emotions, in creating specific communications to engage those emotions, and in assessing the emotional impact of communications on consumers. Put differently, we need to understand both how metaphors can activate and represent emotions in order to select the appropriate cues to include in an advertisement. Furthermore, we need to understand whether or not we have been successful in doing so by analysing the metaphors consumers use when expressing how they processed the ad’s content. Again, quoting Kovecses (2000),

“Emotion language is largely metaphorical in English (and in all probability in other languages as well) in order to capture the variety of diverse and intangible emotional experiences. Methodologically, then, this language is important in finding out about these experiences. The language, however, is not only a reflection of the experiences but it also creates them. Simply put, we say what we feel and we feel what we say. (Italics added)”

Thus, metaphors inform us about emotions, they help transfer emotions from one person to another, and, independently, generate emotions as well. This is consistent with the literature on the impact of behavior on cognition (Damasio, 2002).

There is a general agreement that the basic emotions include joy, fear, surprise, anticipation, disgust, and sadness. Nearly everyone writing on the subject adds other states including social emotions such as shame and guilt. Whatever their number and description, every emotion has a number of functional benefits (Izard, 1993). At a broad level, negative emotions signal problems to be attended to while positive emotions signal rewarding events. Positive and negative affect each contain four families of specific emotions which in turn possess several feelings. Fleur J.M. Laros and Jan-Benedict E.M. Steenkamp suggest that most measures of emotion seem to only use the positive and negative affect as basic dimensions (Laros and Steenkamp, 2005). They caution us about the risk of losing important nuances among emotions if we rely only on these two dimensions. Instead we should consider the multiple emotions within both positive and negative affect and how each of these specific emotions contains many nuanced feelings or sub-dimensions. In fact, we often simultaneously experience negative and positive emotion. In order to understand this experience as it relates to a firm’s offerings it is necessary to know the specific emotion or cocktail of emotions involved.

From a marketing perspective, advertisers who understand the specific emotions that underpin a category can identify particular valences that are latent but under-developed and therefore identify new positioning opportunities. For instance, if Victoria Secret’s advertising is based on Love, this emotional hierarchy can illustrate whether in addition to Sexy, they have products for a Romantic, Passionate, Loving, Sentimental and WarmHearted positioning in their portfolio as well and whether their communications about these products reflect the corresponding nuance about Love. This, in turn, helps identify appropriate signs and symbols – representations – that have the ability to activate these feelings where already present even if dormant or create them where they are absent.

There is often confusion between emotions and feelings with emotions being used interchangeably with feelings. Sometimes emotion is also used simply to indicate the strength of feeling. Emotions and feelings are related but separate phenomena. An emotion is an unconscious system of detection that receives sensory inputs and produces behavioural, autonomic, and hormonal responses; a feeling is the conscious awareness of the emotional system being activated. Emotions help us to register both what is going on inside our bodies and what is happening in our environment; feelings subsequently occur when the person becomes conscious that emotional changes have occurred. This is a critical distinction for advertising research; someone may feel one way about the advertisement but there may be many more emotions at the unconscious level that are not acknowledged consciously. These underlying emotions may also be affected by the medium in which the advertisement is presented and so relying overly on measures of how consumers feel about an advertisement is likely to paint an incomplete picture of an ad’s impact. Media and other contextual dynamics also matter.

The Role of Metaphor and Memory in Communications

We have explored the ability of metaphors to re-present one type of thing as an instance of something else. Re-presentation is a fundamental neurological process. For example, as noted earlier, during sensory input the brain re-presents external objects or events in other forms in various regions of the brain. The brain is constantly interpreting these incoming stimuli so it can compare them with its desired internal states and modify its behavioural, autonomic and hormonal activities which we have identified as emotions. In this section we will continue to explore how this sensory input is re-interpreted through the joint filter of emotion and context before finally being re-presented to memory for encoding.

It is important for advertisers to understand that a frame is created by the joint filter of context and emotion which consumers use to process information in advertising. This shapes the ultimate brand meaning that is placed in long-term memory. For instance, research has shown that men are actually more aware of their gender when they are alone in a room of women watching a TV show than when they are in a room with only men. Being more aware of one’s gender will mean a different processing of a commercial for, say, Viagra, than when one is more aware of other non-gender self-identities.

Frames are like windows allowing you to look into a room; each window allows you to see certain things but also restricts your perception as well. Frequently, frames need to be identified and adjusted to help people emotionally by re-interpreting the context of an issue. In effect, people often need to look into the same room through a different window. The Holocaust survivor and neurologist Viktor E. Frankl tells of an old man sinking into a deep depression after his wife died. He asked the man what would have happened if the man had died first. The man replied “for her this would have been terrible.” Frankl pointed out that the man had spared his wife this suffering and through offering a different context for understanding his wife’s death, helped to pull the man out of his depression (Frankl, 1959).

There are many such examples of metaphors as frames being used to re-present ideas “in a new light” or “from a new angle” causing people to have different emotional associations, belief systems, and behaviours. Metaphorical re-framing techniques for instance have been used to help soldiers overcome an ingrained resistance to killing people. The US military started using these techniques after World War II because the non-firing rate was so high: 75-80% of soldiers would not fire their weapons at an exposed enemy. In the Korean War, non-firing rates had decreased to 45% and by the Vietnam War they were down to only 5% (Grossman, 1995). In politics, several metaphorical reframing efforts have been successfully used in political communications; from “compassionate conservatism” to “collateral damage” the power of metaphor has increasingly been used to influence and persuade.

Many advertisers use their understanding of how consumers employ different frames regarding a category and select one (or more) of those frames for creating brand meaning. For instance, automobile drivers use multiple frames of mind for auto tyres. For many years Michelin used the example of a baby contained safely in a Michelin tyre to communicate the idea of safety and the deep metaphor of container. Figure 2.5.4 a presents a specific execution of this with a baby in a tyre which also contains pairs of toy animals. The latter brings forth associations with Noah’s Ark and the most notorious flood ever. This reinforces the idea of this brand protecting its users from inclement weather. Pirelli, on the other hand, use a different frame also relevant to the tyre category. In Figure 2.5.4b, we see the metaphor of the fist showing the power associated with the Pirelli brand of tires as they grip the road in an aggressive and dominating manner. Whereas the Michelin ad emphasizes the safety dimension of the Container deep metaphor, the Pirelli ad emphasizes two other deep metaphors, namely Force and Connection.

It is also important to understand how the processing of a message is affected by the context of the medium that is selected as well as the context of the outlet where the desired purchase will take place. A commercial for a brand that is received electronically from a friend is different from a branded advergame which is different from a TV commercial and so on. For instance, research for Condé Nast revealed that magazine consumers experience a greater sense of “flow” which, in turn, affects how they identify, process, and find personal meaning in advertisements in favoured magazines compared to the intrusive nature of commercials on TV.

Advertising research needs to identify how the context and associated emotions of every media consumption experience influence the ultimate brand meaning created by consumers. It is also important to go beyond the “positive/negative” paradigm often found in biometric and other research measures. For instance, when a viewer watches a heart-wrenching drama is she truly experiencing “negative” emotions? Or is the feeling of poignancy actually being re-interpreted and experienced as something more positive? Or when another viewer sees the same drama but feels it is heavy-handed rather than poignant – having one’s “heart strings pulled” – will she re-interpret the emotion more negatively as a feeling of being manipulated? Marketers need to not only understand the emotion being experienced during an advertisement but how these emotions are re-interpreted by consumers as a result of their personal contexts. It is this re-interpretation of emotion that leads to the creation of brand meaning that will help drive purchase and use behaviour.

Long-Term Memory

Earlier we explored how new metaphors can change people’s frames of reference. Now we will explore the system in the opposite direction – how people’s existing frames of reference stored in long-term memory influence perception. John J. Ratey (2001) writes:

“An act of perception is a lot more than capturing an incoming stimulus. It requires a form of expectation, of knowing what is about to confront us and preparing for it … we automatically and unconsciously fit our sensations into categories that we have learned, distorting them in the process.” [Italics added.]

The key issue here is how knowledge becomes distorted during encoding and how this distortion affects our perception of the past, the present and the future.

The nature of memory, the relationship between working memory and long-term memory, and how metaphor can be used to leverage memory’s malleability are important issues for advertising. As we will see, changes in long-term memory through the use of appropriate metaphors are indicative of new attitudes and beliefs being formed which may lead to changes in behaviour. Measuring these unconscious changes is believed by many to be a more accurate forecaster of future behaviour than self-reported statements of purchase to intent.

We use working memory to conceptualize events as they occur and long-term memory to orient our plans now and for the future. More specifically, working memory relies on emotion and context in its continuing negotiations with records held in long-term memory to determine what is worth noticing and retaining and what is not. In a nutshell, experience colours perception. The challenge for advertisers is that working memory serves as a bottleneck in this encoding process due to the short duration in which information can be held there. Given the narrow bandwidth of working memory and the challenges of ensuring that sensory input makes it through to long-term memory, advertisers need to develop communications that enable consumers to process information efficiently: minimum necessary stimuli – maximum response. This is where the artful selection of resonant metaphors becomes so critical in the development of advertising and why the assessment of the impact of these metaphors in early stage copy testing is so important.

If a message can break through the clutter in working memory, it can quickly become encoded into long-term memory. To quote John J. Ratey (2001) again:

“studies with amnesiacs have shown that working memory can transfer information to long-term memory within 60 seconds of encoding; the memory is quickly reorganized to minimize dependence on the fleeting short-term memory function, and it is the subjective, interpreted information that is later retrieved for use.”

Later we will see an example of a Budweiser commercial which very effectively uses metaphor to help consumers through this process.

Metaphors are excellent devices for coping with the bottleneck. Metaphors are born when a need arises to understand a new experience and we draw on an existing understanding from some other domain to help us classify, comprehend, react to, and store the new experience in another domain in long-term memory. This prior understanding, in effect, imposes clarity and reduces cognitive overload. A given metaphor, then, serves as a zip file to compress large amounts of emotional meaning and quickly transmits it through the bottleneck and into long-term memory. For example, the early advertising for Febreze needed to communicate just how different the mechanism (a patented molecule) for this product was from existing products intended to get rid of malodour. A simple animated ad showing the molecule as an usher surrounding and escorting molecules of malodour out a room captured accurately and simply an otherwise complex process. Consumers could draw on their prior knowledge of what ushers do with unwanted “guests.”


Understanding the deep metaphor system is also useful when leveraging the malleable nature of memory. Although people often think of memory as being fixed like a photograph or fingerprint, it is in fact a reconstructive process so that the memory for the same event is different each time it is recalled although the person doing the recalling is unaware of these changes. Of course, the changes involved can be so trivial that for all practical purposes there is no change. This is especially true for frequently rehearsed memories. But sometimes the change can be of consequence, including false memories where a person “remembers” an event that can be demonstrated to have never been experienced (Schacter, 2001).

More specifically, memory is now understood to involve the interaction of three things: data encoded in brain cells (these encodings are called engrams), the cues such as metaphors that active those brain cells, and the reasons or goals being satisfied by recall. Different cues or different reasons for remembering will interact differently with a set of engrams thus producing a different memory. This means we cannot separate the act of retrieval and the memory itself.

The recall of memory pieces from long-term storage and their subsequent formation is influenced by the emotions a person experiences during perception and recall. This can lead to the “Rashomon effect” whereby several people can see the same event, such as a crime, but have very different perceptions, interpretations and recollections of it. For marketers, this phenomenon means that advertising not only engages consumers in forward framing processes, i.e., shaping how they process future consumption experiences, but also in backward framing processes that shape their recall of prior experiences (Braun-la-Tour and Zaltman, 2006). This is particularly valuable in markets where brand switching is common; a better recollection of a past consumption experience is likely to help increase repeat usage and brand loyalty.

Although the pieces of a single memory are stored in different neural networks, an important question remains: where is memory located once it is reassembled from its constituent pieces? Damasio has proposed that the elements come together at “convergence zones” near the sensory neurons that first registered the event (Damasio, 1994). These zones allow us to automatically conceive of objects, ideas, or interactions as a whole, if the pieces have been put together enough times. The zones also form a hierarchy: “lower” zones link the cues that allow us to understand the general concept of “dog” while “higher” convergence zones allow us to recognize “Oscar” as my neighbour’s dog. Research into consumer’s unconscious associations using the Response Latency Technique (discussed below) can identify whether brands are successful at activating emotional associations held in consumer’s long-term memory and how well these associations are linked with the brand’s product cues while other techniques such as ZMET (also discussed below) determine the overall brand meaning in the consumer’s mind when the emotional pieces held in memory have been “re-assembled.”

Part of the reason for memory’s malleability concerns the need to maximize brain efficiency. Instead of storing whole and complete memories, the brain can reconstruct them from a manageable number of reusable elements of experience. The concept of “energize” for instance is one puzzle piece that is available to help complete many different puzzles: coffee, running, sleep, food, vacation. Every puzzle piece is free to interact with other puzzle pieces. This may be one reason why dreams can be similar to life and yet still be so strange as they combine pieces together in unexpected and (hitherto) unimagined ways. These are the same processes that imagination uses during much of our waking hours when we are engaged in “what if” thinking. It is this “what if” thinking that advertisers need to leverage in order to engage consumers in the prospect of a new brand product they have not yet considered.

One of the important developments in recent years in the understanding of memory plasticity is that after learning has occurred there is continued processing and integration of the information into memory (McGaugh, 2003). That is, there is continued elaboration and other processing of an experience after an initial association has been established. This continued processing may last as briefly as a few hours or for a few days and possibly longer. During this period there is a special opportunity to reinforce (and also weaken) a particular judgement or learning that has been established. This represents a potentially important but unexplored area for advertising: what kind of advertising, involving what kind of metaphors, should be used to reinforce a message that has already been learned? To what extent will the reinforcing ad need to differ from the initial ad?

This latest understanding about the workings of memory also raises the important question about how we should best define it: if our memory demonstrates plasticity and therefore can be influenced and changed, are memory and imagination actually different? Is one of these activities “real” and the other “made-up” or are both memory and imagination a form of storytelling to oneself? Louis Cozolino (2002) argues that we frequently engage in storytelling in order to keep a stable sense of self, linking our memory of past narratives to our hopes for how they develop in the future:

“Narratives come to regulate the experience and expression of emotional behavior … provide an optimistic memory for the future during distress in the present … Narratives and stories serve as blueprints for behavior and goal attainment. As such, they help to organize moment-to-moment experiences that are required to establish and attain goals. In this way, narratives help us to anchor us in our bodies through time.”

Rehearsing this narrative can be a source of comfort and lead to habitual behaviour. However, when advertising successfully activates the deep metaphors underpinning a category, it can encourage consumer imagination and result in new forms of storytelling, referred to earlier as co-creation. We can consider new ways of seeing ourselves which enable us to renew or redirect our hopes, dream – and aspirations – and the products and brands we use as tools or props to achieve them. When we imagine, that is, when we contemplate that which is missing, we create a variety of potential stories that weave together our multi-sensory emotional, temporal, and memory capabilities so we can fashion new versions of our self-image.

Central to imagination and the way it is encouraged by metaphor is the previously mentioned concept of conceptual blending. So, when Nokia uses the concept of “human” to help highlight certain aspects of its technology by using the phrase “a very human technology,” consumers take the concept of privacy (a quality or need activated by the term “human”) and the concept of powerful (a product attribute) and imagine yet another quality, either scary or secure. Or, the concept of intelligent (a human quality) and the concept of fast (a product quality) blend to create another thought, intuitive. These blends, e.g., secure and intuitive, become a part of long-term memory; they are knowledge items about a particular cell phone.

Using Metaphors in Advertising

Learning which deep metaphors underlie thinking about a particular brand, product or experience can help advertisers select a specific metaphor that is likely to produce engagement, comprehension, and recall. In short, a specific metaphor that relates to the fundamental frame(s) or deep metaphors consumers employ when thinking about a product or category will be more effective in conveying a message than one that is not.

An example provided by Margaret Mark and Carol Pearson in The Hero and the Outlaw, involves Pepsi Cola which leverages a particular representation, the Rebel, and Coca-Cola which leverages another representation the Innocent (Mark and Pearson, 2001). Although advertising should frame their storylines within the parameters of the metaphors that are uniquely associated with each brand, Coke made the error of trying to combat Pepsi’s successful Rebel-style advertising with its own imitation of people throwing tantrums when there was no Coke available. Because both Coke commercials projected a Rebel personality, already owned by Pepsi Cola, which conflicted with its classic Innocent personality, Coke drinkers rejected the campaign. The new ads did not fit the existing frame for Coca Cola and were introduced without a strategic plan to shift to a new frame of reference.

The irony about sculpting a brand and its communications around a single well-chosen metaphor is that consumers will author (or more accurately co-author with the advertiser) multiple meanings; i.e., their unconscious familiarity with the deep metaphor and its association with the brand permits more imaginative engagement with the advertised brand and relate it more clearly to their immediate needs. In short, it enables richer story telling (Coulson, 2001). Conversely, the more ideas advertisers try to explicitly cram into a communication, the more likely it is that the message will falter as it constrains the story telling or co-creation process among consumers. (An example of this involving the beer category is presented shortly.)

McQuarrie and Philips (2005) refer to this phenomenon as weak implicature which “are best thought of as inferences generated as part of an attempt to comprehend advertiser intent.” They suggest that it is the openness of indirect metaphorical claims – the lack of constraints on consumer interpretations – that accounts for metaphor’s persuasive advantages. Verbal metaphors, anchored visual metaphors (visual ads with a caption) and unanchored visual metaphors (visual ads without a caption) all succeed in stimulating more consumer engagement than literal statements and imagery.

When Metaphors are Used Effectively: Budweiser

A research consortium sponsored by the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) commissioned a special application of the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET) (and other methods as well) to assess the impact of emotion in advertising. The specific ads to be evaluated by the different methodologies were chosen by the ARF. The findings highlighted below are some of those emerging from that study. The reader should be made aware that the ZMET methodology requires consumers to self-select images which act as visual metaphors or representations of the thoughts and feelings activated by an advertisement. Respondents see the advertisement one week in advance of the ZMET interview. The respondent’s thinking is later probed during a 2-hour, one-on-one in-depth interview using metaphor elicitation and other indirect techniques to access implicit associations with particular cues in the ad and the role of the brand in the advertisement.

The power of deep metaphors is that not only do they implicitly represent emotion but they can also activate this same emotion in the viewer. In the case of the Budweiser “True” commercial, the deep metaphor of connection is effectively activated through the shared behaviours of the characters who are screaming “Whassup” to each other and holding bottles of Budweiser.

Viewers interpret the “Whassup” as a representation of social ritual which in turn activates the memories of similar rituals and social affiliations in their own lives. As a result, consumers found this funny commercial to have deep personal meaning and relevance. Respondents consistently self-selected images prior to their interview that represented memories of friendship and emotional connection they experienced themselves during the ad and that expressed the relevance of this experience in their lives.

In addition to activating emotions and memories of social connection through the “Whassup” metaphor (a representation of ritual), the overall context or setting of the ad (guys getting in contact with each other on a lazy Sunday afternoon) also successfully engaged the deep metaphor of connection. Just as it is the context that differentiates the meaning of a love scene in a movie drama from a pornographic film, the context of an ad must be integrated seamlessly with the emotion being generated. (This appears deceptively simple as we will see in the Miller ad in a moment.)

By using the stories that people carry around with them all the time, Budweiser is able to turn a one minute vignette from a Sunday afternoon into a complex story about rituals and the type of brand that can cause great friendships to develop or be readily maintained. In doing so, the Budweiser brand benefits enormously from the deep metaphor of connection. As one respondent said in reference to the True advertisement:

“The fact that all five guys in this commercial were all drinking the same beer like it kinda gets you to think maybe this is why they became friends, like this particular brand of beer. It might have just been every single Sunday we’re going to get Budweiser.”

Budweiser has used connection as its deep metaphor time and time again alternatively using frogs, donkeys, clydesdales, people and other animals as different vehicles for delivering the same underlying message. When a brand succeeds in establishing a basic association (literally aneural pathway) in consumers’ minds, subsequent activations of this association increase it strength. Eventually an entire neural network develops in consumers’ minds implicitly associating Budweiser and connection. The added benefit for any brand that uses metaphor in this way is that through the phenomenon of neural reorganization, it becomes difficult for other brands to use this same association. In effect, the deep metaphor is owned by the advertiser. In this case Budweiser owns connection.

When Metaphors are not Used Consistently: Miller Lite

Although Miller Lite created the light beer category, it lost its once dominant position. A common criticism is that it fails to consistently communicate an emotionally compelling idea. We analysed two 15-second commercials from the “Great Taste, Less Filling” campaign for the ARF project. Both commercials are almost identical and are shown back-to-back. A close-up beauty shot of beer is poured into a glass, followed by a narrator’s voice reading the same words that are shown on the screen. In the first advertisement, Miller Lite is touted as a superior beer to Bud Light because Miller Lite “has half the carbs” and has won an event called “The World Beer Cup.” In the second advertisement, Miller Lite is said to be a great-tasting beer that has “one-third less carbs than Coors Light.”

In both “Great Taste, Less Filling” commercials, the deep metaphor of motion and movement is activated very effectively at the beginning of the ad by the visual image of a wave and a youthful soundtrack. The wave and the music work well together in representing an experience of momentum. This triggered multiple memories, emotional associations and personally relevant meanings for consumers. Some consumers simulated the experience of drinking the beer: “… you’re watching the pour, which gives you the feeling of refreshment. You are practically there holding that beer in your hand and you’re drinking it” while other viewers imagined they were actually in a wave themselves: “… how fast the beer came down and hit the glass causing that wave. That was energetic. That was definitely exciting to see. It was a good feeling. It was like a thrill. It’s that same adrenaline rush that you get if you’re under water or you’re doing wind-surfing, or you take even a dive into the water.” Although some people might think of this commercial as being “functional,” consumers certainly experienced emotion and personally relevant meanings at the beginning of the ad through the metaphors of the wave and the music.

Unfortunately, the remainder of the commercial fails to capitalize on the metaphor that is effectively activated at the beginning. As mentioned earlier, advertising must synchronize the context of the ad with the emotion being generated to motivate consumers’ creation of internal schemas about the brand; if consumers’ story-telling capabilities are not activated there will be no emotional associations or memories created or enhanced. This does not mean that an advertisement must follow the beginning, middle and end associated with traditional storytelling. It does mean that consumers must find invitations or at least opportunities to bring memories and/or imagination to an advertisement and therefore find personal relevance in it.

Participants viewing the Miller ads were frustrated by the experience of starting off with a positive emotional experience and then not being able to integrate this emotion with Miller Lite’s compelling slogan “Great Taste. Less Filling.” They found the execution too packed with ideas rather than having one clear metaphor used consistently throughout the commercial.

The Role of Metaphor in Advertising Research

The Challenge of Traditional Research

Emotional framings that underlie thought and behaviour are normally dressed up in rational clothes. Those clothes can be important and provide clues about more significant underlying dynamics. But these outer layers of clothing can also be misleading and incomplete. In fact, it is generally understood that when consumers provide rational explanations of behaviour they are creating largely false if coherent stories about what their unconscious emotional systems have already decided.

“Each of us feels that there is a single “I” in control. But that is an illusion that the brain works hard to produce … When surgeons cut the corpus callosum joining the cerebral hemispheres, they literally cut the self in two, and each hemisphere can exercise free will without the other one’s advice or consent. Even more disconcertingly, the left hemisphere constantly weaves a coherent but false account of the behavior chosen without its knowledge by the right … The conscious mind – the self or soul – is a spin doctor, not the commander in chief.” (Pinker 2002)

Given the difficulties in accurately identifying how the unconscious determines behaviour, the conscious responses given in traditional research methods such as surveys and focus groups are limited in their ability to identify drivers of behaviour operating below awareness. Not all important issues, of course, require or merit going beyond what is readily available in the conscious mind. Often, however, the insights needed to develop engaging communications, i.e., to turn on consumers’ minds, do require this deeper understanding. In such cases, tools that tap implicit processes are required to identify the relevant emotional systems and operating frames that drive behaviour. Three tools most familiar to the authors are discussed next. There are, to be sure, additional tools discussed elsewhere which also have great value (ARF, 2005). The reader is particularly encouraged t oread Chapter 4.1 in this volume, “Pretesting: ‘Before the Rubber Hits the Road,” for an excellent treatment of ad pretesting methods.

Developing and Testing Metaphor Communications

Advertisers need to be able to develop communications that engage emotional processes and conscious thought and which produce personally relevant brand stories. This requires using methods that can identify the frames consumers use when thinking about a product and which can help select the metaphors and other advertising cues that will enable consumers to create appropriate meaning about the product. Methods that can determine whether and how well a meaning or message has been integrated into consumer belief systems are also needed. The following discussion identifies one approach that many firms find helpful in identifying frames or deep metaphors operating among consumers and in developing communications. We also discuss two techniques that show promise in evaluating the nature and degree to which consumers are engaged with advertising information and creating new meanings at an unconscious level.

The Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET)

A major challenge in the development and evaluation of advertising is posed by the process of conceptual blending or conceptual integration. Again, this refers to the creative process whereby, for instance, the meaning of “fast” with regard to a computing technology becomes associated through an advertisement with the meaning of “convenient” to create yet an additional or blended meaning of “powerful.” By speaking explicitly only about “fast” and “convenient” through the use of metaphor, the communication encourages the audience to also think that something fast and convenient is quite powerful (as a business tool or for satisfying needs quickly). The audience creates the idea of powerful as their existing frames interact with the contents of the ad. This is also referred to as the co-creation of meaning (Zaltman, 2003). In effect, consumers co-author with advertisers the meanings they develop as a result of their ad exposures. This contrasts with what appears to be the dominant model-in-use in advertising described as the hypodermic needle model. That model assumes that a specific meaning can be injected into consumers. This model has little support in the academic literature. It is, however, the primary justification for using various recall measures of advertising effectiveness. Unfortunately, those measures do not capture the personally relevant meanings or stories that advertising does produce and which account for so much of an ad’s success or failure.

ZMET analyses the non-literal expressions consumers use to represent their thoughts and feelings about a topic. This technique is widely used now in more than 30 countries by global corporations and others to understand the mental models and deep metaphors or basic frames consumers use when thinking about a need, a product or service category, or a particular brand.

More recently, firms and advertising agencies have been using an adapted form of ZMET to go beyond developing communications strategy and to help in the early assessment of particular advertising executions. In these applications the ZMET interview is a one-on-one discussion that usually takes 90-120 minutes. In preparation for the interview, participants are asked a few days prior to their interview to collect visual images that represent their thoughts and feelings about the product category involved in the advertisement(s) being assessed. Each image is a visual metaphor that the consumer uses to communicate the meaning of a category or particular brands or products in his/her life. Consumers engage in storytelling about the meaning of their self-selected images both with respect to the category and again with respect to the advertising concept or the execution being evaluated. The interviewer probes the meaning and feelings that emerge through these surface metaphors that are associated with each cue to determine the type and degree of emotional affect. Interviews are later analysed to identify which advertising concept is engaging consumers in the richest storytelling and what meanings are emerging through co-creation. Cues that are impeding the communication of the metaphor can be identified and improved. This approach has been effective in identifying unexpected interpretations in response to an ad. Sometimes these are directionally consistent with the ad’s intent and sometimes they are counter-productive. This provides considerable guidance for improving the communication.

All methods are compromises with reality, of course, and ZMET is no exception. While it has a number of advantages in developing and evaluating advertising concepts and alternative executions it has certain limitations as well. These limitations also apply to its non-advertising applications. One limitation is that there are occasions when statistical significance is needed as well as substantive significance. ZMET does not provide statistical significance. Put differently, sometimes it is necessary to know the velocity of the wind as well as its direction. ZMET provides direction, not velocity. Additionally, for advertising applications ZMET is most appropriate as a developmental tool to identify relevant options, provide stimuli for creative personnel to use, and to assess concepts and executions in their early stages when corrections are feasible. Despite the examples above involving finished ads, that is not the most cost-effective application unless one needs to know why an ad has or has not been effective. ZMET will not provide a quantitative estimate of likely level of effectiveness. Also, ZMET analyses are labour-intensive and turnaround may require two or more weeks, depending on the particular application. On occasions when these limitations are significant other techniques such as field or laboratory experiments and biometric techniques are important to use. Two relatively novel such alternatives, each based on well-established research traditions are discussed below. There are, however, a number of established quantitative methods available.

Response Latency Testing (RLT)

Response latency is a tool used in cognitive psychology to evaluate a variety of mental processes, such as the effectiveness of a stimulus in activating constructs held in memory. The speed of this activation reveals the associative strength between the stimulus and conceptually related constructs demonstrating the cognitive workload or level of “noise” in processing the new information. The “response latency” is the interval of time between presentation of a stimulus and the resulting response. Measuring these response times to study how the mind works is called mental chronometry. Response times are measured in milliseconds. The data are analysed using analyses of variance (Mast and Zaltman, 2005).

The Response Latency Test quantifies the ability of metaphors to activate unconscious emotional thinking. One use is in exploring how readily a brand can own a particular metaphor and how this compares to competitors. Frequently two brands will be linked to the same metaphor in qualitative research (e.g., Nike and Under Armor are both associated with “Transformation”). It then becomes important to use RLT in measuring whether one of these brands is particularly associated with this metaphor and therefore whether the brand can more easily activate and “own” that idea than its competitor.

RLT can show the impact of our instinctive reactions and impulses on longer-term belief systems. This has important implications for all types of marketing because these rapid associations become stored in implicit memory systems that drive behaviour. RLT measures have been used to understand voters’ perceptions of candidate’s faces and how those impressions impact voting behaviour. Voters were asked to judge the “relative competence of recent candidates for U.S. Congress races,” based solely on a 1-second view of the candidates’ black-and-white head shots. On the basis of only the facial appearances and with no prior knowledge of the person, RLT correctly predicted the election outcomes nearly 70% of the time. This result demonstrates that rapid trait judgements strongly influence voting choices (Science, 2005).

An important goal of advertising is to create empathy which motivates consumer behaviour. Empathy is driven by the activation of mirror neurons. These neurons are in Broca’s and the inferior parietal cortex of the brain and some scientists consider mirror neurons to be one of the most important findings of neuroscience in the last decade. A mirror neuron is a neuron which fires when its “owner” observes an action performed by another person. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behaviour of the other person, as though the observer were performing the action. When mirror neurons are activated, a consumer not only “knows” what is being experienced by a character in an ad but can feel it as well. Therefore, the advertisement has succeeded in emotionally engaging the consumer through empathy.

One of the requirements for the activation of mirror neurons is that their activity is context-dependent. This means that people not only need to recognize particular movements but can also understand the intention behind them. Due to the importance of context, advertisers can use RLT to identify symbols such as brands and other metaphors that consumers readily associate with one another. Research on consumption constellations for instance strongly suggest that functionally dissimilar yet symbolically related products are used for cognitive organization by consumers and therefore marketers and advertisers should consider the use of RLT for collaborative advertising (Lowry et al., 2001).

Memory Integration Tests

Having identified the richest advertising concept through ZMET, it is important to measure the extent to which the underlying frame is being adopted by consumers as their new belief system. Memory integration tests enable advertisers to track the enduring impact of reframing on consumer belief systems. These tests are a more accurate indicator of future behaviour than self-reported statements because the implicit nature of the test is measuring emotional thinking at an unconscious level.

The memory integration test measures the degree to which an advertisement has influenced consumers’ own memory of their beliefs (Braun-LaTour and Zaltman, 2006). The degree to which an advertisement has caused consumers to remember an earlier reporting of a belief differently and in the direction of the ad’s message is an ad that contains information that the consumer has unconsciously adopted as their own and therefore will have an enduring impact on their emotions and behaviour. Measuring this impact is enormously helpful before launching an ad and also to measure its effectiveness in the marketplace over time. As competitors begin to manoeuvre against it, perhaps by copying the ad’s metaphorical framing and style, it is possible to measure when a new set of cues will be needed to effectively reactivate the underlying framing that the marketer seeks to associate with a given brand.


  • A metaphor is a representation of one thing by use of another thing. The “things” involved can be objects or thoughts. The term metaphor is used broadly in this chapter to refer to any non-literal or figurative expression, in effect, any non-literal expression. Whether broadly or narrowly construed, metaphor is a central part of all human thought and communication. It is so central that we are often unaware of its use and its impact.
  • Advertising content makes liberal and usually deliberate use of metaphor. It is itself a metaphor for the product, service or practice or other goal it is designed to promote. We have attempted to demonstrate how metaphor works in general as part of the effort to describe its importance in advertising. For this reason we have discussed the importance of metaphor with respect to emotion and memory since one important goal of advertising is to have an enduring (memorable) emotional impact on consumers. This is often best achieved by having communications that engage consumers’ own thinking such that they co-author a story or meaning with the advertiser. This is referred to as co-creation in which stimuli in an advertisement interact with existing thinking among consumers to create a story that may vary from consumer to consumer but is directionally consistent with the intent of the advertising. Unless an ad uses emotionally arousing metaphors it is unlikely to engage existing meanings already possessed by consumers (in their existing memory) and hence unlikely to have the intended meaning of the ad ultimately embedded in consumer thought.
  • To help consumers co-create a meaning from an ad that makes the ad memorable it is essential that the ad evoke a relevant deep metaphor. A deep metaphor is a basic frame, a kind of archetypical metaphor, that is used unconsciously and automatically by consumers in deciding what information to attend to, whether and how to process that information, and what to do as a result. Deep metaphors are siblings to emotions. In fact, we argue as others do, that metaphor is essentially the language of emotions and therefore central to understanding emotions. Deep metaphors are the stage on which emotions and their corresponding sentiments and feelings play important roles. Advertisers need to identify what that stage is or could be and create advertising with those judgements in mind.
  • Since metaphor is so critical to the creation of messages that have enduring emotional impact, it is hardly surprising that an effective way of evaluating advertising copy is to examine the metaphors consumers use when describing how they engage the message. We presented an application of one technique, ZMET, that does this. This application involved two beer commercials. This same technique is also useful in learning what deep metaphors are used for a brand or category and for identifying the kind of surface metaphors that advertisers could use to activate deep metaphors and associated emotions. Other approaches also have been used productively.
  • In describing how metaphor works we mentioned the process of conceptual blending. That is, when two different domains are brought together, such as a metaphor as one domain and a product as the other, two things occur. One is that the metaphor helps consumers better understand certain attributes, functions, and emotional consequences of the product or offering being advertised. The second happening which is especially important is that the two domains interact to create a new idea not inherent in either the metaphor or the object being related to it. Thus, the use of metaphor also results in the creation of new thoughts. This is an inevitable consequence of the co-creation of meaning. One implication of this is that when evaluating advertising it is important to identify the additional ideas, intended or not, that are being added by virtue of the metaphors being used. While not discussed here, there are numerous examples of unexpected meanings arising from an advertisement some of which were beneficial and some detrimental to the intended message.