Metaphor is widely regarded as a basic linguistic form in nearly all types of discourse. In contrast to early thinking about metaphor, which emphasized its role as a stylistic embellishment used for rhetorical effect, modern theories consider metaphor to be an essential feature of thinking itself. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980) identified a variety of metaphor types that interconnect to structure how people conceptualize their experiences with their physical and social environments. This cognitive perspective on metaphor has stimulated scholarship on metaphor phenomena in a great many disciplines, including communication, organizational theory, political science, art, philosophy, computer science, and law. The role of metaphor in persuasion is of particular interest to communication scholars. Research findings suggest, for example, that advertising containing metaphors receives greater attention from readers and evokes more positive affect toward the ad (McQuarrie & Mick 1999).
Function Of Metaphors
Metaphors present two ideas or terms in relationship to one another such that one is used to organize or conceptualize the other. For example, the statement “encyclopedias are gold mines” uses the idea of gold mines to clarify or modify the reader’s conception of encyclopedias. Various names have been given to the two terms that are combined in a metaphor. In the example just given, the subject of the metaphor, encyclopedias, is often called the topic or target. The idea that is used to transfer new meaning to the topic (e.g., that encyclopedias store riches) may be called the vehicle or metaphor source.
For a metaphor to accomplish its work, there are two additional conditions that must be met. First, the two terms must share some properties and those common properties need to be at least minimally relevant to the claim made by the metaphor (i.e., A is B). Otherwise, the attempt at creating an analogy will seem implausible to the reader. Some metaphor theorists refer to the process of transferring the properties of the source to the target as one of “mapping” relevant aspects of the source onto the target (Lakoff & Johnson 1980). In this view of metaphor effects, the source transfers both some of its properties to the target and a structure for articulating the relationships among those properties. A somewhat different theoretical perspective is called “conceptual blending” (Turner & Fauconnier 1995). There, the metaphor is said to create a unique conceptual structure in which selected aspects of the source and target are combined.
The second essential condition for a metaphor to work is that the attempt to combine properties of the source and target must seem at least mildly incongruous or initially nonsensical to the reader or viewer. That is, the proposition that A is B cannot be literally true. An effective metaphor creates tension by intentionally violating norms of language use or the reader’s beliefs about the world. The interplay of simultaneous similarity and incongruity in an effective metaphor stimulates a problem-solving response in the reader or viewer and a higher degree of engagement in the process of decoding the meaning of a message. Greater engagement with the text is thought to facilitate the persuasion process.
The preponderance of metaphor research has been conducted with linguistic expressions. In recent years, however, researchers have turned their attention to nonlinguistic forms of metaphor phenomena. Two primary emphases in the field of visual metaphor studies are metaphors in the visual arts and metaphors in advertising. Examples in the first category include studies of metaphors in painting, sculpture, graphic design, architecture, and movies. Trevor Whittock (1990) identified symbolic elements in popular films that created metaphoric effects through context, image distortion, or juxtaposition of one object with another. As an example of a visual metaphor created through context, Whittock cites the famous scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho when the female lead takes a shower after a lengthy day of trying to flee the scene of the crime in which she had stolen a substantial amount of money. In the context of the emotions of guilt and remorse portrayed by the character prior to that scene, the shower becomes a visual metaphor for spiritual cleansing. In this example, the visual presentation of the metaphor adds little to what might have just as effectively been expressed through linguistic means. Other examples of metaphoric content in films are more distinctly visual in the way they achieve their effects. Whittock describes a scene in Dr Strangelove in which a wide angle lens was used to distort the faces of a flight crew in such a way that the images of the men appear to merge with the shape of the military aircraft that they were commanding. In this visual metaphor, the airmen are made integral with the instrument of death that they operate.
Research by Kaplan indicates that visual metaphors are widely used in product advertising, appearing in one-third of ads for beverages, automobiles, and fashion products (1992, 2005). The visual presentation of metaphors varies from simply showing the source and topic side by side in the picture (e.g., in an ad for a car, the product is seen next to a fighter plane) to those in which the physical form of the topic is transformed such that certain features of the metaphor source become incorporated in the pictorial representation of the product. The first type is a visual version of “simile,” while the second type is a visual metaphor of the form “A is B.” Charles Forceville (1998) identified various formal features of metaphors in print advertising. Forceville’s theory of visual metaphor in advertising distinguishes those cases in which only one of the two pictorial elements in a metaphor (either the topic or the source) is visually presented versus those in which both parts of the metaphor are depicted. When only one of the two parts of the metaphor is visually presented, the other metaphor term is supplied by text accompanying the ad or the reader’s cultural knowledge. Forceville also describes visual “similes” and he differentiates these from metaphors by the degree of literalness in the comparison between the two elements. Because visual similes are more literal, their effects presumably require less decoding effort on the part of the viewer.
Architecture is a type of visual text that combines elements of art and persuasion. This dual function of architectural design was the focus of Kaplan’s (2006) metaphor analysis of the effort to rebuild the World Trade Center site after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Visual metaphors were found to play a central role from initial planning efforts through the selection of architectural designs. Shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center towers, extensive public hearings were held to solicit ideas for an apt architectural response to the tragedy. One image that emerged early in the process was the idea of memorializing the foundations of the absent twin towers. The visual metaphor of the buildings’ “footprints” acquired rhetorical power for gaining public acceptance of the master plan for the site and for a permanent memorial that integrates the footprints into its design.
Some Current Issues
While there is general agreement on the similarities between linguistic and nonlinguistic metaphors, attention has also been paid to distinguishing characteristics between the two types. The phenomenon of directionality is one distinction that has been suggested. In common usage, linguistic metaphors are rarely reversible. That asymmetry is reflected in the use of terminology like “source” and “target,” and sentences containing metaphors are typically stated as “A is B.” However, metaphors in visual form may be more likely to be multidirectional. Hausman (1989) suggests that reversibility may be a common occurrence in painting and sculpture. But in the case of advertising, contextual cues generally leave little doubt as to the intended direction of a metaphoric combination because the advertiser’s goal is usually to invest the product (i.e., the metaphor target) with favorable properties borrowed from the metaphor source. Further research should be done on visual metaphors that occur in ambiguous contexts to determine how viewers determine which is the likely source and which is the target.
Metaphor and irony are generally thought of as similar in their construction and interpretation. Both metaphor and irony present an incongruous relationship between the two things being compared and invite the reader to discover similarities. However, for irony to be correctly interpreted, the reader must take the additional step of trying to guess if the speaker really meant the opposite of what appears to be the meaning of the statement. Thus, irony involves a second-order interpretive process in which the reader must assess the speaker’s intent. Colston and Gibbs (2002) found evidence for this second-order interpretive process in experiments in which readers took longer to process irony than metaphor. Little is known about visual irony. Are the cues for decoding irony in pictorial form different than is the case with linguistic irony? What are the contextual cues that seem to be useful? Again, advertising may be a good place to start research in this area. Advertisers sometimes introduce self-mockery in their presentations in order to deflect criticism of their industry or to appear more credible. Irony could also be used to discredit competing brands within a product category.
Most of the research on visual metaphor has involved static images, such as those found in a print advertisement. But the movement of pictorial elements in a visual frame could have independent metaphoric effects. Another important area for future research is visual metaphors in multimedia presentations, including those where some degree of interactivity is possible. What happens, for example, when the viewer has a measure of control over the timing and order of a visual presentation? Similar questions arise regarding visual metaphors that might be created through linking in web-based media.
- Colston, H. L., & Gibbs, R. W., Jr (2002). Are irony and metaphor understood differently? Metaphor and Symbol, 17, 57– 80.
- Forceville, C. (1998). Pictorial metaphor in advertising. New York: Routledge.
- Hausman, C. R. (1989). Metaphor and art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Kaplan, S. J. (1992). A conceptual analysis of form and content in visual metaphors. Communication, 13, 197–209.
- Kaplan, S. J. (2005). Visual metaphors in print advertising for fashion products. In K. Smith, S. Moriarty, G. Barbatsis, & K. Kenney (eds.), Handbook of visual communication: Theory, methods, and media. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 167–177.
- Kaplan, S. J. (2006). Visualizing absence: The function of visual metaphors in the effort to make a fitting response to 9/11. In G. S. Jowett & V. O’Donnell (eds.), Readings in propaganda and persuasion. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
- McQuarrie, E. F., & Mick, D. G. (1999). Visual rhetoric in advertising: Text-interpretive, experimental, and reader-response analyses. Journal of Consumer Research, 26, 37–54.
- Turner, M., & Fauconnier, G. (1995). Conceptual integration and formal expression. Metaphor and Symbolic Activity, 10, 183 –204.
- Whittock, T. (1990). Metaphor and film. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.