Understanding Visual Metaphor
Barbara J. Phillips
University of Saskatchewan
Imagine having a dream in which ordinary objects blend and merge into fantastic hybrids. In the dream, you reach for a pot on the stove, only to snatch your hand back when you discover the pot handle has turned into a cactus. After slipping into one shoe, you find that the other has morphed into a sleek black sports car. Hoping to escape the dream, you race to your car but as you place your luggage into the trunk, the car burps. You slide behind the wheel and find a bottle of dishwashing liquid hanging from your rearview mirror.
Welcome to the world of visual metaphor in advertising—a place where products undergo strange, dreamlike transformations in order to persuade consumers to purchase commodities. The cactus pot handle from your dreams is the central image in an ad for Advil pain reliever, an ad for Tod's shoes places its loafer side-byside with a sports car, the Toyota Echo eats your luggage “whole, ” and dishwashing liquid takes the place of a car's air freshener in an ad for Cascade. Although visual metaphor has been appearing in ads for at least 50 years, researchers are just starting to understand this rhetorical figure. Some researchers have chosen to focus on the literary and interpretive aspects of the arresting imagery in visual metaphor ads; others have concentrated on examining the cognitive effects of this ad execution. This chapter reviews what we know about visual metaphor and poses questions to provoke thought and spur new research that can build a deeper understanding of the impact of visual metaphor in advertising.
A metaphor is a rhetorical figure—an artful deviation from audience expectation that occurs at the level of style, not content, and is not judged as an error by the