Visual Metaphor

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

  • An Introduction to Punctuation
  • Ph.D., Rhetoric and English, University of Georgia
  • M.A., Modern English and American Literature, University of Leicester
  • B.A., English, State University of New York

A visual metaphor is the representation of a person, place, thing, or idea by means of a visual image that suggests a particular association or point of similarity. It's also known as pictorial metaphor and analogical juxtaposition.

Use of Visual Metaphor in Modern Advertising

Modern advertising relies heavily on visual metaphors . For example, in a magazine ad for the banking firm Morgan Stanley, a man is pictured bungee jumping off a cliff. Two words serve to explain this visual metaphor: a dotted line from the jumper's head points to the word "You"; another line from the end of the bungee cord points to "Us." The metaphorical message—of safety and security provided in times of risk—is conveyed through a single dramatic image. (Note that this ad ran a few years before the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007-2009.)

Examples and Observations

"Studies of visual metaphors used for rhetorical purposes generally concentrate on advertising. A familiar example is the technique of juxtaposing a picture of a sports car . . . with the image of a panther, suggesting that the product has comparable qualities of speed, power, and endurance. A variation on this common technique is to merge elements of the car and the wild animal, creating a composite image..."In an ad for Canadian Furs, a female model wearing a fur coat is posed and made up in a way that is slightly suggestive of a wild animal. To leave little doubt as to the intended meaning of the visual metaphor (or simply to reinforce the message), the advertiser has superimposed the phrase 'get wild' over her image."

(Stuart Kaplan, "Visual Metaphors in Print Advertising for Fashion Products," in Handbook of Visual Communication , ed. by K. L. Smith. Routledge, 2005)

A Framework for Analysis

"In Pictorial Metaphor in Advertising (1996) . . ., [Charles] Forceville sets out a theoretical framework for the analysis of pictorial metaphor.. A pictorial, or visual, metaphor occurs when one visual element ( tenor / target ) is compared to another visual element ( vehicle / source ) which belongs to a different category or frame of meaning. To exemplify this, Forceville (1996, pp. 127-35) provides the example of an advert seen on a British billboard to publicize the use of the London underground. The picture features a parking meter (tenor/target) framed as the head of a dead creature whose body is shaped as the fleshless spinal column of a human being (vehicle/source). In this example, the vehicle visually transfers, or maps, the meaning of 'dying' or 'dead' (because of lack of food) onto the parking meter, resulting in the metaphor PARKING METER IS A DYING FEATURE (Forceville, 1996, p. 131). Considering that the advert wants to promote public transport, having lots of parking meters wasting away in the streets of London can only be a positive thing for underground users and the underground system itself."

(Nina Norgaard, Beatrix Busse, and Rocío Montoro, Key Terms in Stylistics . Continuum, 2010)

Visual Metaphor in an Ad for Absolut Vodka

"[The] subcategory of visual metaphor involving some violation of physical reality is a very common convention in advertising...An Absolut Vodka ad, labeled 'ABSOLUT ATTRACTION,' shows a martini glass next to a bottle of Absolut; the glass is bent in the direction of the bottle, as if being drawn toward it by some invisible force..."

(Paul Messaris, Visual Persuasion: The Role of Images in Advertising . Sage, 1997)

Image and Text: Interpreting Visual Metaphors

"[W]e have noticed a decrease in the amount of anchoring copy used in visual metaphor ads...We theorize that, over time, advertisers have perceived that consumers are growing more competent in understanding and interpreting visual metaphor in ads."

(Barbara J. Phillips, "Understanding Visual Metaphor in Advertising," in Persuasive Imagery , ed. by L. M. Scott and R. Batra. Erlbaum, 2003) "A visual metaphor is a device for encouraging insights, a tool to think with. That is, with visual metaphors, the image-maker proposes food for thought without stating any determinate proposition . It is the task of the viewer to use the image for insight."

(Noël Carroll, "Visual Metaphor," in Beyond Aesthetics . Cambridge University Press, 2001)

Visual Metaphor in Films

"One of our most important tools as filmmakers is visual metaphor, which is the ability of images to convey a meaning in addition to their straightforward reality. Think of it as 'reading between the lines' visually. . . . A couple of examples: in Memento , the extended flashback (which moves forward in time) is shown in black-and-white and the present (which moves backward in time) is told in color. Essentially, it is two parts of the same story with one part moving forwards and the other part told backward. At the point in time where they intersect, the black-and-white slowly changes to color. Director Christopher Nolan accomplishes this in a subtle and elegant way by showing a Polaroid develop."

(Blain Brown, Cinematography: Theory and Practice , 2nd ed. Focal Press, 2011)

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  • What Is a Creative Metaphor?
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  • What Are Metonyms? Definition and Examples
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  • Simile Definition and Examples
  • Hyperbole: Definition and Examples
  • Definition and Examples of Conceptual Blending
  • What Is Personification?
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  • Dead Metaphor Definition and Examples
  • Rhetorical Analysis Definition and Examples
  • Tenor (Metaphors)
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Visual Metaphor — Definition & Examples of Metaphors in Art

Daniel Bal

What is a visual metaphor?

A visual metaphor uses the pictorial representation of an object to suggest an association or similarity. Visual metaphors contain only images and are found in art, advertisements, film, and television. Visual metaphors use physical similarities to make something look like something else, or conceptual similarities, the ideas behind the images.

visual metaphor essay

How is a visual metaphor effective?

A visual metaphor is effective because it uses visual communication to establish themes, develop character arcs, and effectively communicate main ideas.

Establish themes – Visual metaphors use an image that adds insight into the desired interpretation (e.g., using a werewolf to illustrate the internal conflict between conscience and instinct).

Character arcs – By connecting an image to a character, these visual elements become an extension of their identity. The image then impacts that character in some way (e.g., Harry Potter and his lightning bolt scar).

Communication – Pictorial metaphors can communicate information that language often cannot. The translation of words from one language to another may impact meaning. Visual images need no translation; therefore, visual metaphor ads work well (e.g., an image of a beach with an oversized bottle of sunscreen in front of the sun casting a shadow over the crowd).

Learn more about how visual metaphors compare to other  types of metaphors .

Visual metaphor definition

Visual metaphor examples

Examples of visual metaphors are mainly found in art and advertising, but filmmakers occasionally incorporate them into television shows and movies.

Visual metaphors in movies and on television shows include the following:

Marvel Cinematic Universe – Stars and the colors red, white, and blue cover Captain America’s outfit; he is a visual representation of patriotism.

Rocky – The image of Rocky running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art represents his growth as a boxer.

Friends – The couch in the coffee shop represents the unity found amongst the friends and emphasizes the bond they share.

Visual metaphor example movies

Pictorial metaphors in art

Visual metaphor art includes both paintings and sculptures, with some popular examples including the following:

"The Apotheosis of Washington by Constantino Brumidi

The "Apotheosis of Washington" is painted on the ceiling of the rotunda of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. It depicts George Washington rising to the rank of a god. It emphasizes that Washington was both a man and an ideal. As a founding father, Washington became an icon, representing the American ideology.

“American Gothic” by Grant Wood

Wood's "American Gothic" contains an image of a farmer with a pitchfork in hand standing next to his wife with their farmhouse in the background. He finished the painting in 1930, just as the Great Depression started to take hold of the country. He used the painting as a response to the dark days ahead, highlighting the strength of the Midwesterners to weather the storm.

“The Thinker” (Le Penseur) by Auguste Rodin

Rodin's "The Thinker" is a sculpture of a sitting man with an elbow on his leg and his chin resting on his fist, suggesting he is deep in thought. The sculpture has come to represent the power of the act of thinking, indicated by the man's athletic build.

Visual metaphor example art

Visual metaphors in advertising

Advertisers use visual metaphors to sell a product or service, as they can present a lot of information in a small amount of space. This type of metaphor is more effective than verbal metaphors. The following are examples of visual metaphors used in print ads:

Partnership for a Drug-Free America (PDFA)

The PDFA used two visual elements, the image of an intact egg and one frying in a pan. This visual analogy represents the impact of drug use on the brain.

To emphasize the role orange juice plays in a complete breakfast, Tropicana created a visual metaphor that is the image of an orange shaped like a piece of toast.

Visual metaphor example advertising

Mercedes Benz

Mercedes Benz developed an advertisement containing an aerial shot of a chicken with two foxes on either side. If the chicken were to swerve right or left, the foxes would eat it. The company used this double meaning to advertise its car's ability to stay in its lane automatically.

Metaphor

By Michael Wright

In today’s digital landscape, visuals are a necessity, not a luxury or an accoutrement. The spread of smartphones and social media has made them an essential part of communication. Visual is the broad term for anything we look at (photographs, illustrations, videos, etc.) used for communication. Visuals are a more effective and efficient means of communication than the written word.  

We are visual learners, and we equate seeing with the truth.  Our brains process visuals 60,000 times faster than text, and “90 percent of information transmitted to the brain is visual” (Walter & Gioglio, 2014). Not surprisingly, we remember 80 percent of what we see compared to 20 percent of what we read and only 10 percent of what we hear 1 . Compelling images account for 94 percent 2 more views than content without images.  

Visuals are a ubiquitous presence in our lives. The challenge facing communication professionals is how to make their message stand out. Visual metaphors offer an opportunity to penetrate clutter and reach an audience. 

Visual Metaphors

A metaphor is a figure of speech where a word or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to imply a resemblance. For example, the internet is the information superhighway. Metaphors are ingrained in how we think and make sense of the world. They’re “pervasive in everyday life, not just language, but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.” (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). Metaphors are commonplace in advertising. Approximately 75 percent 3 of print advertisements include at least one metaphor in its headline.

Visual metaphors are visual tropes. They are highly structured images that stimulate viewers to understand one concept in terms of another concept (Zeeshan, 2015). Visual metaphors perform better than verbal metaphors in advertising. “…subjects comprehended the advertiser’s intended meaning more often for visual metaphor ads than for verbal metaphor ads” (Scott & Batra, 2004).  The reason is simple. The inclusion of the visual eases comprehension because viewers don’t need to create mental images. Visual metaphors are more common than you might think. According to the limited research on the subject, slightly more than three out of ten print ads 4 contain visual metaphors.

Types of Visual Metaphors

There are three types of visual metaphors: juxtaposition, fusion, and replacement. The three types have different levels of complexity based on the amount of inferences viewers need to make to come to an acceptable conclusion. Juxtaposition is the least complex, fusion is moderately complex, and replacement is considerably complex (van Mulken, van Hooft & Nederstigt, 2014).

Juxtaposition

Juxtaposition, also called similes, includes two images side-by-side. The visual includes the product (or target) next to what it’s being compared with (or the source).

An example of a juxtaposition visual metaphor for a Volkswagen Passat.

This example from Volkswagen juxtaposes a Volkswagen Passat with the lead Elk. The Volkswagen separates the leader from the herd, so we perceive the Volkswagen with the lead Elk. The association is formed from Gestalt’s principle of proximity. Because the Volkswagen is close to the leader, we group it with the leader. Volkswagen is a leader—it is the lead Elk.

Gravity Anomaly example of a juxtapose visual metaphor

The next example is from Gravity Anomaly, an activewear apparel company. It juxtaposes a pair of shorts in front of a gravestone. On face value, it’s a bizarre message. Why would a brand want its product associated with death? The gravestone is a metaphor for a lifetime guarantee. This line of activewear is so durable it will last a lifetime.

Text Anchors

The Gravity Anomaly advertisement is a prime example of the necessity for textual clues. At the bottom, proceeding the logo is the text, “With its LIFETIME GUARANTEE, you wouldn’t want to be caught dead in anything else.” This practice is called “anchoring,” and it provides advertisers with a lifeline to ensure viewers understand the metaphor and the ad’s message. Almost every visual metaphor includes a text anchor to explain the metaphor’s puzzle if viewers can’t work it out for themselves. The desire for text anchors makes sense. Text anchors are a double-edged sword for advertisers. They are proven to aid in viewer comprehension but decreased consumer pleasure in interpreting the message (Phillips, 2000).

This Heineken example juxtaposes a glass of beer next to a stack of CDs

Let’s look at an example from Heineken next. The advertisement juxtaposes a glass of beer next to a large stack of CDs. This visual has a few drawbacks that lessen its effectiveness. The scale of the glass of beer is off, or it’s a tiny glass. The second problem is having the Heineken label appear in the stack of CDs. The metaphor is too simple. It requires little cognitive effort—or elaboration—to solve. Generally speaking, the more difficult the puzzle, the more enjoyment a viewer attains from finding the solution. Finally, the advertisers included a text anchor.

This advertisement would be better without the label on the stack of CDs or, better yet without the glass of beer—just the “labelled” stack of CDs as a fusion metaphor.

Fusion—also known as hybrid or synthesis—combines the product (target) with what it’s being compared with (source) to form a single visual element (called a gestalt).

This Fusion example is from Syndey Brewery's Glamarama Summer Ale

The above example is an advertisement for Sydney Brewery’s Glamarama Summer Ale. It fuses the ale bottle with a popsicle. For the metaphor, the popsicle equals cold—a cold ale is a perfect complement for a hot summer day.

This fusion example is a Fresh Mug Advertisement

The next fusion example is a Fresh Mug advertisement. It fuses a bale of wheat with a mug complete with beer foam. The metaphor is our beer is so fresh you can taste the wheat.

This fusion example is for McDonald's McFlurry

The next fusion example comes from McDonald’s advertising the McFlurry. The advertisement fuses a man and ice cream, with the ice cream replacing his hair. It’s obvious that he has a McFlurry on the brain. The man’s expression is a further clue that he is thinking of ice cream. He’s staring off in a classic look of contemplation.

Replacement

The final and most complex type of visual metaphor is replacement. Replacement is when either the product (target) or what it is being compared to (source) is absent. Replacement is also called a contextual metaphor because it relies on context for viewers to find (or infer) meaning.

This example of a replacement visual metaphor is by Mercedes-Benz

This example from Mercedes-Benz uses a chicken to represent a car, and foxes represent danger and the lane markers. If the chicken strays from her lane, she’ll find danger. This visual plays on viewers understanding that foxes are a natural predator for chickens. Using two of the same predators taps the Gestalt principle of similarity, so viewers group them, making them easily understood as lane markers.

This replacement example is for Walkin Fitness Studio

The advertisement above is for Walkin Fitness Studio, an Indian fitness studio. This example uses animals as metaphors for a person. The visual includes silhouettes of an elephant’s rear end, the studio logo, and the front half of a horse. Each silhouette is cut off by a vertical line. The lines are on either side of the logo form a boundary for the logo. The lines and negative space surrounding the logo form the studio. The metaphor is rich: lumber in an elephant, leave a stallion.

Replacement example from Chevrolet, where football replaces a car

Chevrolet provides the example above, where a game of football replaces a car. It’s the context—in this case the lines of the parking space—that allows viewers to infer the action replaces a car.

However, this is another example of how dependent visual metaphors are on text anchors. Without the text mentioning hands free park assist, it would be difficult to apply meaning to the visual. The replacement metaphor is strong (football replacing a car), but the intended meaning is unclear. The football action is also a metaphor for what someone is thinking about when he or she is parking the Chevrolet, and the hands-free park assist allows him or her to think about football instead of parking the car.

Interpreting Visual Metaphors

Visual metaphors aren’t read literally. They require interpretation. Visual metaphors deviate from viewer expectations. It’s the unanticipated deviation (or incongruity) that causes viewers to think figuratively and make inferences about the advertisement’s intended meaning. What viewers do is find the first plausible meaning that seems relevant to the message.

Think of visual metaphors as puzzles—when we see them, we instinctively need to solve them.  In our quest to solve the puzzle, we’re going to be lazy and use as little energy as possible. We’re also going to assume that the amount of effort it takes to solve the puzzle equals the amount of reward we’ll gain from finding the solution.

“Receivers are inclined to expend as little effort as possible to understand the message and at the same time they will try to gain as much effect as possible from the message by processing it. In other words, receivers expect that the more processing costs a message requires, the more effect they will gain” (van Mulken, van Hooft & Nederstigt, 2014).

Viewers trade cognitive effort for information and pleasure—the satisfaction gained from finding the visual’s meaning. This exchange of cognitive effort for information and pleasure is visual metaphors’ value for advertisers. It’s also an inherent risk because the information and pleasure effect is contingent on viewers ascertaining the visual’s intended meaning—solving the puzzle. Without the payoff, visual metaphors can frustrate viewers and can be a brand liability.

In visual metaphor research, when an audience can easily understand an advertisement’s meaning, it’s called strong implicature . Conversely, it’s called weak implicature when an audience has difficulty finding a meaning. Let’s look at a few examples.

Strong Implicature

This example of strong implicature is by Volkswagen

Most of the examples discussed before were strongly implied. This example from Volkswagen has an ostrich in a cheetah suit as a metaphor for a car. It is relying on the audience to know that an ostrich is fast, but a cheetah is faster. The message is our car was fast—the new model is faster.

Weak Implicature

Vidiane, a Brazilian food company, provides an example of a weakly implied visual metaphors.

This visual for Viande, a Brazilian food company, is weakly implied. It is difficult to read without prior knowledge of the company. The text anchor (or caption) translates to “noble cuts of beef.”  The cow represents the beef—that connection is easy to make. It’s the nobility that is difficult to make. The author’s first thought was that cow looks like a piece of furniture?

The advertiser’s intent was the pattern to be likened to the imprint on a high-end fashion accessory. Viewers were expected then to associate high-end fashion with nobility and apply the attributes of nobility to a cut of beef. Our cattle are premium quality, so our cuts of beef are premium quality.

This Boag's Draught advertisement is weakly implied.

This advertisement for Boag’s Draught is also weakly implied. The unexpected deviation is the dog’s head. Why is it small? The text anchor, “These waters just make things better,” doesn’t necessarily answer the question. The stick in the dog’s mouth is the clue. He didn’t submerge his head. The water made him big. The advertisement is relying on the audience to know the cliché bigger is better. Without this knowledge, the image looks bizarre. The message is the water from Tasmania is special, and the beer is special because it is brewed with Tasmanian water.

The Benefits

Visual metaphors have three primary benefits: attention , elaboration , and pleasure . Visual metaphors grab attention because viewers notice their novelty—deviation from expectation—stands out from the clutter, particularly in low involvement viewing conditions (e.g., magazine). Visual metaphors provoke elaboration (or cognitive activity), which means viewers make inferences or develop a theory. Pleasure comes from a sense of accomplishment from resolving the visual’s meaning.

“The novelty of metaphors induces perception of error, but when the meaning is understood, the negative tension is relieved. Visual metaphors also elicit pleasure since the initial ambiguity stimulates interest and motivation, and the subsequent resolution is rewarding.” (Jeong, 2008).

Visual metaphors can be seen as counterintuitive for advertisers because “research has shown time and again that consumers are uninterested in, ignore, and actively avoid processing advertising messages” (Phillips, 2003). If viewers avoid “processing” or comprehending advertising messages, why would advertisers want to make it more challenging to process their messages? The answer is simple: people love to solve puzzles .

When we see a visual metaphor, it jars us and grabs our attention because it’s so unexpected. We elaborate on the picture and solve the puzzle and are left with a feeling of satisfaction. We are satisfied because the experience flatters our intelligence (or intellectual capabilities) by showing us that we’re smart enough to solve the puzzle.

Selling Points

Positive attitude.

The secret potential of visual metaphors is the pleasure (or positive feelings) from solving a visual metaphor becomes associated with the product or company. This means that the pleasure the audience gains translates to a positive attitude toward the product and the brand. The boost in a positive attitude is a result of a rapport between the advertisers and the audience established when the audience solves the puzzle. Van Mulken et al. found that advertisements with visual metaphors are appreciated more and better understood than advertisements without visual metaphors (2014).

Increase Recall

Solving a visual metaphor also “enhances memory trace for the ad” (Phillips & McQuarrie, 2004)—simply put, it increases viewer recall of the advertisement.

Visual Metaphors are Persuasive

Including a visual metaphor improves the audience’s perception of the sender’s (or source) credibility. Viewers judge companies that use visual metaphors as more credible because their creativity is evaluated highly. “Metaphors may lead to greater persuasion mediated by message recipients’ positive evaluations of the message source.” (Jeong, 2008).

Jeong (2008) found that advertisements with visual metaphors are more persuasive than advertisements without visual metaphors. The persuasiveness of visual metaphors is linked to the amount of engagement the audience needs to figure out the advertisement’s meaning. “Greater degree of mental participation required by visual argumentation may lead to a product of audiences’ own construction of meaning…and because people are often more willing to adopt a proposition that they have constructed, the implicitness of visual [not clearly expressed] argumentation can be a strong point of visual persuasion.” (Jeong, 2008).

Some research also suggests that persuasiveness is affected by the amount of cognitive effort used making inferences because viewers will have fewer cognitive resources left to counter-argue the advertisement’s claim. The more effort viewers spend speculating on the meaning, the less likely they are to weigh the validity of an advertisement’s claim. This will, of course, increase the likelihood viewers accept an advertisement’s message. We enjoy a compelling visual metaphor so much that we accept its message without looking at it critically.

The Downside

Novelty (or deviation from expectation) is the catalyst for all the benefits of visual metaphors. It’s challenging to come up with a novel concept. What’s worse, the benefits of visual metaphors are dependent on comprehension. Without understanding, visual metaphors are at best useless and at worst destructive. At their root, visual metaphors are a balancing act between complexity and comprehension. If either is out of balance, advertisers have a big problem.

Visuals that are too complex will decrease persuasion and pleasure. “Several studies have suggested that if a message is considered too difficult to solve, demanding too much cognitive processing effort, readers/viewers may opt-out and appreciation decreases.” (van Mulken et al., 2014).

On the other side of the spectrum, visuals that are too easy have minimal benefit.  So, if the product and what it’s compared to are similar, viewers have less appreciation for the advertisement. “Advertisements with metaphors that contain relatively comparable sources and targets were less appreciated than advertisements with metaphors with relatively incomparable sources and targets” (van Mulken et al., 2014).

The same study found conventional metaphors were less appreciated than unconventional metaphors (van Mulken et al., 2014), which underscores how tied the benefits of visual metaphors are to novelty.

Visual metaphors rely heavily on context and are culturally constructed. This means that visual metaphors—especially weakly implied ones—run the risk of being misinterpreted and having unintended or conflicting meanings applied to them.

Let’s look at examples of ineffective visual metaphors.

Ineffective Visuals

This example of a visual metaphor from Toyota associates a push-button start with a beehive.

This example promoting a Toyota with a push-button start is perplexing. Most people associate poking a beehive with pain—being stung—which begs the question, why would a company want its push-button start associated with a beehive? One can only hazard that the concept is to challenge viewers to try it because it isn’t painful.

This ad for Karlberg's Mixery Blend attaches an umbilical cord to an alcoholic beverage

This advertisement for Karlsberg’s Mixery Blend is cringeworthy. The error may be attempting to be too literal. Clearly, the advertisers didn’t pay enough attention to the implications of attaching an umbilical cord to an alcoholic beverage. Is it wise to have an alcoholic beverage associated with infants or nursing mothers? Also, this idea could link this beverage to bodily fluids—not appetizing.

This advertisement for Gringo's Tequila raises cultural issues.

The execution of this advertisement for Gringo’s Tequila, a South African Tequila company, is excellent. The concept, however, raises cultural issues. The replacement visual metaphor has a Lucha libre (Mexican wrestling) wrestler’s head in a shot glass replacing tequila. It relies on a common stereotype—a lucha libra wrestler—that can easily be seen as offensive, which will impact the company’s brand. In this case, the company probably doesn’t care if it’s seen as a politically incorrect brand—and maybe its customers don’t care either.  The point is advertisers and designers need to be cognizant of the cultural implications for their visual metaphors.

There is no denying that visual metaphors grab viewer attention—a necessity for any advertising—the question is to what effect? They offer the opportunity to improve consumers’ attitudes toward a product and brand. Visual metaphors are more persuasive, more appreciated, and better understood than advertisements without visual metaphors.

Visual metaphors are a balance between complexity and comprehension. To viewers, visual metaphors are a puzzle to solve and the greater the challenge, the greater the reward for solving the puzzle. Advertisers need to find the elusive middle ground between too complex and frustrating viewers or too simple and boring them. If viewers can’t resolve a visual metaphor, it hurts appreciation for the product and brand. Text anchors (included text) ensure viewers understand a message but at the expense of spoiling the fun of solving the puzzle. Further, Jeong 2008 found that visual metaphors without text anchors were more persuasive and concluded that “supplementary verbal propositions may not be necessary.”

Moderately complex fusion metaphors have the most potential for advertisers and communicators. “The results from our study demonstrate that visual metaphors of moderate complexity are indeed most effective. Fusions turn out to be appreciated most, whereas replacements, the most complex type of metaphors, are least appreciated.” (van Mulken et al., 2014).

Visual metaphors are a gamble and not for the risk averse. However, if advertisers are willing to roll the dice, visual metaphors present a unique opportunity to penetrate through the clutter and make a rewarding connection with an audience.

  • Wyzowl infographic
  • Power of Visual Storytelling by Ekaterina Walter and Jessica Gioglio.
  • Kim, Baek, & Choi, 2012 reported that approximately 75% print advertisements included at least one metaphor in their headline.
  • Studies on the prevalence of visual metaphors are rare. Kaplan (1992) looked 464 prints advertisements for automobiles and alcoholic beverages and found that 31% used visual metaphors.

Gkiouzepas, L., & Hogg, M. K. (2011). Articulating a new framework for visual metaphors in advertising. Journal of Advertising, 40 (1), 103-120. doi:10.2753/JOA0091-3367400107

Jeong, S. (2008). Visual metaphor in advertising: Is the persuasive effect attributable to visual argumentation or metaphorical rhetoric? Journal of Marketing Communications, 14 (1), 59-73. doi:10.1080/14697010701717488

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). The metaphorical structure of the human conceptual system. Cognitive Science, 4 (2), 195-208. doi:10.1207/s15516709cog0402_4

Lidwell, W., Holden, K., & Bulter, J. (2015). The pocket universal principles of design (1st ed.). Beverly, MA: Rockport Publishers Inc.

Phillips, B. J., & McQuarrie, E. F. (2004). Beyond visual metaphor: A new typology of visual rhetoric in advertising. Marketing Theory, 4 (1-2), 113-136. doi:10.1177/1470593104044089

Scott, L. M., Batra, R., & ProQuest Ebooks. (2003). Persuasive imagery: A consumer response perspective . Mahwah, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. doi:10.4324/9781410607256

Shan, C., Yu, M., & Xue, K. (2017). Effects of metaphor advertising on brand extension evaluation: Construal level as mediator. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal, 45 (6), 967-985. doi:10.2224/sbp.5962

van Mulken, M., van Hooft, A., & Nederstigt, U. (2014). Finding the tipping point: Visual metaphor and conceptual complexity in advertising. Journal of Advertising, 43 (4), 333-343. doi:10.1080/00913367.2014.920283

Zeeshan, A. (2015). Visual metaphors in language of advertising. Language in India, 15 (10), 74-82. Retrieved from http://libraryproxy.quinnipiac.edu/login?url=https://search- ebscohost -com.libraryproxy.quinnipiac.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ufh&AN=110414996&site=ehost-live&scope=site

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5 Visual Metaphors to Understand Academic Writing

Is the concept of academic writing difficult for you? Let’s try to make sense out of it by using fun pictures. And here is the first one: ‍

Skeleton ( Outline)

single human skeleton on white

You are probably wondering, “What does a skeleton have to do with writing?”  Well if you look at the skeleton, a frame is the only thing you can see.  And by the shape of this frame it’s pretty obvious that this is a skeleton of a human being, not a cat, or a bird.  The unique organization of the bones shapes the skeleton of a human being and makes you recognize it and distinguish it from the skeletons of birds and animals.

The same concept applies to an outline of an academic essay, or any piece of writing for that matter.  The outline helps you clearly see the shape of your essay.  And not only you can differentiate between different writing genres by looking at the outlines, but you can also clearly see how you can develop a real creature-essay out of the skeleton-outline.  The outline shows the relationships among your ideas and themes, it identifies the main and supporting ideas—in other words, it shows the hierarchy of the ideas.

I find it extremely helpful to outline and organize ideas before the actual writing process.  The outline can surely keep you on track once you get engaged into the composing process.  In addition, as I mentioned, the outline helps you see the places in your draft where particular ideas may fit better.  Let’s say you are writing an essay about public speaking and you feel that more support is needed in your draft.  You may want to do extra readings or add personal examples.  So if you have an outline of your draft, you will have no difficulty placing those new supporting details—once you find them—in the “right spot” in the draft.

visual metaphor essay

From my personal experience, when the outlining stage is not skipped, the writing process becomes less burdensome.  Some may think that outlining takes away the time that you could spend on the actual writing process.  The truth is: It actually saves time!  Once you have a plan, you will less likely “wander around” trying to organize your ideas and find connections between them.  So my suggestion would be never skip it! This is particularly important on timed-writing assignments, such as TOEFL writing. Trust me, the two minutes that you spend on sketching your ideas will turn out to be a great benefit.

‍ Athlete (Supporting Details)

Basketball player

But of course a skeleton is not a real body!  It needs skin, muscles, and organs to live.  Guess what?  The outline by itself is not “real piece of writing” either.  Just like the skeleton needs more substance to become alive, your outline also needs some “meat” to live and breathe.  And this is where supporting details come into the picture.  By explaining and elaborating on the topic, they give your essay its individual character.

There are various types of supporting details, such as facts, statistics, opinions, examples, anecdotes, and testimonies.  It’s important to remember that the types of the supporting details that you would use will depend not only on the topic and the genre of your essay, but also on the audience ( http://www.talktocanada.com/blog/involve-your-audience-like-a-rock-star-the-importance-of-knowing-your-audience-when-speaking-and-writing-esl ) and your relationship with it.  For example, if you are composing a scientific article that you would like to submit to a journal read by academically-oriented audience, it is unlikely that you will rely on personal examples and anecdotes as your supporting details.

‍ Ice Cream With Ketchup (Paragraph Unity)

Close-up of ginger ice cream with melted milk in a bowl, horizontal

Now, can you imagine the taste of ice-cream topped with ketchup? It doesn’t sound very delicious right?  And if I were to serve dinner, I would not offer it to my guests.  Metaphorically speaking, you offer ice-cream with ketchup to your audience when you do not maintain the unity of the paragraphs in your writing.

The rule of thumb is to include only those sentences that support the topic of the paragraph, in other words, relate to the main idea of the paragraph.  when you write, keep in mind the principle of unity, and if you see a sentence that does not belong to a certain paragraph, take it out because it’s ketchup on your ice-cream.

Ketchup bottle

Multilayer Cake (Types of Sentences)

cream chocolate fruit cake sweet food dessert

Speaking about desert, here is another example.  You would probably agree with me that uniqueness of this cake is in its layers, which make it so flavorful and so desirable!  Imagine that this delicious piece of cake is a paragraph in your essay, and the layers of the cake are your sentences.  Sentences in a paragraph all have different functions.  Normally, a paragraph should contain a topic sentence—one layer in the cake.  The function of the topic sentence is to declare the main idea of the paragraph.  The rest of the sentences provide support, but their functions vary too—just like the other layers in the cake.  Some of your supporting sentences will provide argumentation, some will include ideas contrasting to the one indicated in the topic sentence, and some will simply provide an explanation of the topic sentence.

Once again, the choice of supporting details will depend on your topic, the genre, the audience, and perhaps your creativity (as long as you don’t throw in any ketchup!).  Nevertheless, they should all make one unit, just like all the layers together make a cake.  In other words, you need to be sure that the sentences in your paragraphs are connected with transitional words and phrases that show the relationship among these sentences.

‍ Plate of Noodles (Sentence Structures)

Boiled spaghetti

Staying on the topic of sentence variety I would like to introduce the next picture metaphor: noodles.  Let’s look at this plate of noodles.  Surely they look good, and I believe they taste just fine. But how about this plate?

Pasta with tomato sauce, parmesan and vegetables

Adding veggies, spices, and sauce makes a big difference, doesn’t it?Here comes the explanation of this metaphor.  Simple sentences are probably able to convey your message just fine, similar to how a plate of plain noodles is able to satisfy hunger.  But if you want to catch your readers’ attention, you need to do “

1. Combine simple sentences into longer utterances by using the following conjunctions :

  • For – a reason: I try not to waste any single bit of food, for it’s pretty expensive for a college student.
  • And – a similar, or an equal idea: I wanted to go to the zoo, and my brother wanted to come with me.
  • Nor – a negative equal idea: My cat refuses to eat dry food, nor will she eat fish.
  • But – an opposite idea: I have good computer skills, but I a having a hard time with this software.
  • Or – an alternative possibility: You can use your credit card, or you can write me a check.
  • Yet – an unexpected or surprising continuation: I am not a big fan of dogs, yet I like to play with your puppy.
  • So – an expected result: I don’t have much time, so you should hurry.

visual metaphor essay

2. Combine simple sentences with conjunctive adverbs .  The most common conjunctive adverbs are used:

  • To add a similar idea ( also, besides, furthermore, in addition )
  • To add a contrasting idea ( on the other hand, in contrast )
  • To add an example ( for example, for instance )
  • To add an unexpected continuation ( however, nevertheless, nonetheless )
  • To add an expected result ( accordingly, as a result, as a consequence, hence, therefore, thus )

3. Indicate the relationships between two simple sentences by putting them in one sentence by using adverbials .  For example, you can use the following adverbials:

  • Time: after, before, when, while, as, as soon as, since, until, once, as long as, whenever, every time that
  • Cause and effect: since, because, now that
  • Contrast: although, even though, though
  • Direct contrast: while
  • Condition: if, unless, only if, even if, whether or not, in case

4. Use clauses in place of subjects, objects, and complements in your sentences.  Here are some examples of clauses:

  • Whether -clauses: I wonder whether I should go to this party or not.
  • If -clauses: Let me know if you still want to go to this party.
  • That -clauses: I am afraid that I won’t be able to go to this party.

5. Use the structure: Question words ( when, where, how, who, whose, what, which ) followed by infinitives.  For example: I wonder what I should do.6. Use – ever ( whoever, whatever, whenever, however ) words.  For example: Whoever wants to come to this party is welcome.7. Use clauses to modify adjectives in your sentences.

  • Adjective clause pronouns: The article that I just read was really good.
  • Using whose : I know the author whose article you are reading now.
  • Adjective clauses with where : The district where we live is very beautiful.
  • Adjective clauses with when : I still remember the day when I wrote my first article in English.

8. Use adjective clauses to modify pronouns in your sentences.  For example:

  • There is something I need to tell you.
  • Anybody who wants to come to this party is welcome.
  • I don’t believe anything she said.
  • She is the only one who in my opinion deserves this award.

So let’s summarize the principles of academic writing addressed above.  When you write an essay, or any other piece of academic writing, keep in mind the following: 1) Outline your ideas before you start the actual process of writing, 2) Use supporting details to explain and elaborate on the topic, 3) Maintain the unity in paragraphs, 4) Use various types of supporting details, 5) Use a good variety of sentence structures.  Academic writing doesn't have to be hard!

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Aspects of Metaphor pp 189–218 Cite as

  • Visual Metaphor
  • Noel Carroll 8  

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Part of the Synthese Library book series (SYLI,volume 238)

It is the contention of this paper that there are visual metaphors. That is, there are some visual images that function in the same way that verbal metaphors do and whose point is identified by a viewer in roughly the same way that the point of a verbal metaphor is identified by a reader or a listener.

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The notion of depiction here derives from Monroe C. Beardsley, Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1958), Chapter 6, section 16.

Google Scholar  

See also: Goran Hemeren, Representation and Meaning in the Visual Arts (Lund: Scandinavian Books, 1969), especially Chapter 2.

See Arthur Danto, ‘Description and the Phenomenology of Perception’, in Norman Bryson, Michael Ann-Holly and Keith Moxey (eds.), Visual Theory: Painting and Interpretation (New York: Harper Collins, 1988), pp. 201–215.

This name for the phenomenon in question was suggested to me by Albert Rothenberg’s notion of homospatial thinking. However, I use the idea of homospatiality far more narrowly than does Rothenberg as will become apparent in this article. He applies the term to music, to literature and to all sorts of visual art, whereas I use the term to refer only to certain forms of visual imagery. For Rothenberg’s wider conception, see Albert Rothenberg, The Emerging Goddess: The Creative Process in Art, Science and Other Fields (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), pp. 268–328.

In Francoise Gilet and Carlton Lake, Life with Picasso (New York: Signet Books/ McGraw Hill, 1964), pp. 296–297.

Though I agree that this issue would be an appropriate topic of discussion in another sort of paper.

This illustration can be found in Claes Oldenburg, Notes in Hand (London: Petersburg Press, 1972).

See II Kings 23:10 and Jeremiah 32:35.

The distinction between source domains and target domains derives from George Lakoff and Mark Turner. See: George Lakoff and Mark Turner, More than Cool Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), p. 38.

See, for example, Hollis Frampton, Circles of Confusion (Rochester, N.Y.: Visual Studies Workshop, 1983), pp. 166–167.

See the interpretation of this figure in Carl Linfert, Hieronymus Bosch (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1989), p. 74.

Obviously, the language here is adapted from Max Black’s classic article ‘Metaphor,’ from Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society , N.S. 55 (1954–55), pp. 273–294.

I have added the qualification “generally” above since some commentators have claimed that some metaphors are true. One example that has been proposed is “Business is business.” Similarly, there may be borderline cases of visual metaphors where the disparate elements in question are not strictly physically incompossible. For instance, in Horatio Greenough’s famous, patriotic statue George Washington , our first president is dressed in the garb of an Olympian god. The statue invites the thought “George Washington is Zeus.” However, strictly speaking, it is not impossible that Washington wears drapery, though it is impossible, given the facts of his life, that Washington be an ancient anything. Physical noncompossibility, it seems to me, tracks the core cases of visual metaphor, though it certain compelling borderline cases, it may be that the incongruity involved falls short of physical noncompossibility and depends on historical or social impossibility or even unlikelihood.

Such an attitude toward film images is often attributed to Siegfried Kracauer. See his Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960).

For discussions of this position see: Calvin B. Pryluck, ‘The Film Metaphor Metaphor: The Use of Language-Based Models in Film Study’, in Literature/Film Quarterly 3, no. 2 (Spring 1975)

Pryluck, Sources of Meaning in Motion Pictures and Television (New York: Arno Press, 1976); Louis Giannetti, ‘Cinematic Metaphors’, in Journal of Aesthetic Education 6, no. 4 (October, 1972)

Trevor Whittock, Metaphor and Film (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), Chapter I.

Clearly the case of Typewriter-pie also blocks the suspicion that all visual metaphors merely illustrate commonplace, pre-existing linguistic metaphors. For to my knowledge there is no pre-existing, commonplace verbal metaphor to the effect that “typewriters are pies.” That is, whereas in certain anti-clerical circles “priests are pies” may be a commonplace metaphor, ‘typewriters are pies’ is not a commonplace linguistic metaphor among any group of English speakers. Moreover, the advent of Oldenburg’s sketch did not make it a commonplace among any group of English speakers. Also, it is the case that many of what I am calling visual metaphors do trade in commonplace metaphors. In this respect some visual metaphors fall into the class that I have elsewhere called verbal images — images that are predicated not only on commonplace metaphors, but also on commonplace idioms, phrases, sayings and so on. The visual metaphors that rely on homospatiality and that illustrate commonplace metaphors fall into the class of verbal images. On the other hand, verbal images that illustrate commonplace metaphors but which do not do it by means of homospatiality count only as verbal images and not as visual metaphors. For an account of verbal images, see: Noel Carroll, ‘Language and Cinema: Preliminary Notes for a Theory of Verbal Images’, in Millennium Film Journal , nos. 7/8/9 (Fall/Winter, 1980’1981).

W. Bedell Stanford, Greek Metaphor (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1936), p. 95.

See Monroe C. Beardsley, ‘The Metaphorical Twist’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 22, no. 3 (1962).

Moreover, I would want to reject the view that if an image — verbal or visual — only mobilizes object comparisons, then it is not a genuine metaphor. Some metaphors may involve more than object comparisons, but that does not compel us to consign those that only evoke object comparisons to the status of the non-metaphorical.

See Arthur Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981)

and A. L. Cothey, The Nature of Art (New York: Routledge, 1990).

See also Carl R. Huasman, Metaphor and Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989). In a somewhat different vein, Michael Baxandall maintains that art criticism is fundamentally metaphorical. See his ‘The language of art criticism’, in The Language of Art History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

This objection, first and foremost, is aimed at Danto’s view of art as metaphor in his Transfiguration of the Commonplace .

This position is advanced in: Virgil Aldrich, ‘Visual Metaphor’, Journal of Aesthetic Education 2 (1968); and Virgil Aldrich, ‘For in the Visual Arts’, British Journal of Aesthetics 11 (1971). Aldrich’s position is somewhat difficult to follow. It has been usefully recounted by Carl Hausman in his Metaphor and Art , pp. 149’150. I have benefitted a great deal from Hausman’s helpful synopsis.

The requirement here is that the physically noncompossible elements be literally copresent in the same object. This precludes certain cases that people may be prone to call visual metaphors. For example, in the film The Gold Rush , Charlie Chaplin as The Tramp treats the nail of a boot as if it were a turkey-bone (specifically as if it were a wishbone). Due to Chaplin’s miming, on seeing Chaplin’s performance, one is inclined to entertain the thought that the nail is a wishbone. However, since the nail elements and the wishbone elements are not literally co-present in a single object, the image does not count as a visual metaphor. That is, the wishbone is only a suggestion, conjured up by Chaplin’s gestures. No wishbone elements are literally fused with nail elements. Nevertheless, there is a relation between Chaplin’s miming and what I call visual metaphors. In both cases, two or more objects are “superimposed;” but in visual metaphor, the fusion is literal, whereas in the Chaplin case it is not. Rather, Chaplin’s miming induces the audience to use their imaginations in order to grasp the superimposition. The audience imagines the coincidence of the nail and the wishbone rather than seeing elements that are literally co-present in the object. Due to this difference, I am disposed to categorize the Chaplin case, as well as comparable exercises in pantomime, as an instance of Mimed metaphor, rather than visual metaphor. For a discussion of mimed metaphor, see Noel Carroll, ‘Notes on the Sight Gag’, in Andrew S. Horton (ed.), comedy/cinema/ theory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).

It should be noted that this condition entails that nonobjective art is not metaphorical. For insofar as the art in question is nonobjective, it is not perceptually recognizable. This may seem problematic to some since often critics let on that this or that piece of nonobjective are is a metaphor for something or other. But I think that there is a problem here. If a painting is truly nonobjective, then it would appear to me that we have no way of divining the relevant categories whose interplay yields metaphorical insight. Nonobjective paintings can certainly be expressive, they can be moving, they can symbolize things in a noniconic way. But if they are not perceptually recognizable wholes and if they have no perceptually recognizable parts, it is difficult to see how they can enlist metaphorical thinking.

The creature in the movie Alien would appear to be an example of this sort.

Ina Loewenberg, ‘Identifying Metaphors’, in Mark Johnson (ed.), Philosophical Perspectives on Metaphor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1981), pp. 175–176. This entire section of this paper has been heavily influenced by Loewenberg’s article.

This, of course, is a general principle of communication. See, for example, Edward H. Bendix, ‘The Data of Semantic Description’, in D. Steinberg and L. Jokobovits (eds.), Semantics: An Interdisplinary Reader (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971).

Lakoff and Turner, More Than Cool Reason , p. 63.

Donald Davidson, ‘What Metaphors Mean’, in Philosophical Perspectives on Metaphor , p. 217.

Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment , translated by J. H. Bernard (New York: Hafner Publishing Company, 1972), p. 158.

Robert Fogelin, Figuratively Speaking (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), pp. 52–67 .

It may be the case that some of Arcimboldo’s fantastic images are to be deciphered as allegories. However, in the case of The Librarian , it seems more accurate to regard it as a representation of a librarian cleverly composed out of books rather than as a visual metaphor. Similarly, though perhaps controversially, I am inclined to regard Picasso’s Bull’s Head as a representation of a bull’s head, cleverly composed out of a bicycle, rather than as a metaphor.

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Carroll, N. (1994). Visual Metaphor. In: Hintikka, J. (eds) Aspects of Metaphor. Synthese Library, vol 238. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-015-8315-2_6

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A Cultural Visual Metaphors: Similarity and Differences Essay

A visual metaphor is a comparison of something that belongs to one category with another of a different category (Arnheim 125). It suggests a similarity between the two things. Visual metaphors vary from one cultural setting to another. For this reason the intended message may be lost if a metaphor from one culture is used in another one.

Therefore, visual metaphors that are used in cosmopolitan societies must be universal in order to fit into everyone’s mental model of reality. Visual metaphors tremendously enhance our thinking and understanding of things.

Some examples of visual metaphors include: American farmers need a financial safety net, Ideas are mushrooms that multiply quickly, he played the devil’s advocate yesterday, ideas are winged, things are elephant right now, asking questions is priming the pump of better understanding, thoughts are the seeds of creation, we left on foot even though it was raining cats and dogs, a positive attitude is a lighthouse for the hopeful, you have the heart of a lion, you’re my sunshine, she is a visual thinking butterfly, still in her cocoon.

Visual metaphors play an important role in learning. Metaphors in general improve the speed with which we grasp various things and notions. Learners are able to get some things faster. However, this is thought is true only when the learner has already experience of the image being used (Benson 200). The understanding of a new thing will in such situations depend on the individual’s understanding of the image.

Metaphors help the learner understand reality. Metaphors are used on a daily basis to help us get an insight of the world around us. Visual metaphors shape one’s understanding of the surrounding. This in turn influences one’s mental picture of reality.

The mental model of reality is instrumental in assisting one to make critical decisions on some situations later in life. The decisions made tend to be more effective when one is exposed to metaphors early in life. Visual metaphors may also inspire and motivate one depending on one’s understanding of the metaphor.

Visual metaphors help us in visual thinking. The metaphors provide the user with an opportunity to communicate a visual message in a way that enhances understanding and awareness (Bowers 73). Visual metaphors help people we are communicating with connect with us and thus create a deep understanding of the message being shared. Therefore, metaphors add color to our understanding.

Another effect that visual metaphors have on visual thinking is linking the new with the familiar. They help bridge the gap between the new and the familiar. This device assists its users in putting together new concepts and ideas in a way that others can connect with. Each new idea is presented to the end user in a manner that evokes familiarity and understanding. Familiarity helps us overcome the fear and anxiety associated with encountering things for the first time. It nurtures acceptance and tolerance.

Visual metaphors help us internalize what we learn. Internalization is a pre-requisite for better understanding and abstraction. Internalization helps us form mental models of things. The models later come into play when we are thinking abstractly.

Metaphors, therefore, play an important role in society. They help us understand difficult subjects through association. Visual metaphors are an important aspect of visual thinking. They add color to visual thinking. Without visual metaphors, visual and abstract thinking would be plain.

Works Cited

Arnheim, Rudolph. Visual thinking . Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. 1999. Print.

Benson, Thomas W., & Prosser, Michael. Readings in classical rhetoric . Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. 2002. Print.

Bowers, A., & Flinders, David J. Responsive teaching: An ecological approach to Classroom patterns of language, culture, and thought. New York: Teachers College Press. 1990. Print.

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"A Cultural Visual Metaphors: Similarity and Differences." IvyPanda , 12 Aug. 2019, ivypanda.com/essays/visual-metaphors/.

IvyPanda . (2019) 'A Cultural Visual Metaphors: Similarity and Differences'. 12 August.

IvyPanda . 2019. "A Cultural Visual Metaphors: Similarity and Differences." August 12, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/visual-metaphors/.

1. IvyPanda . "A Cultural Visual Metaphors: Similarity and Differences." August 12, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/visual-metaphors/.

Bibliography

IvyPanda . "A Cultural Visual Metaphors: Similarity and Differences." August 12, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/visual-metaphors/.

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What is a Visual Metaphor — Definition - Examples in Art - Film - StudioBinder

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F ilm is primarily a visual medium. Filmmakers have various tools to create meaning through visual elements, one of which is the visual metaphor. Visual metaphors are often subtle, but are incredibly important for filmmakers in communicating and resonating with an audience. What is a visual metaphor? How and why do filmmakers use them? We’ll break down a few visual metaphor examples to answer these questions and more.

Watch: What is a Metaphor — 8 Types Explained

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Tools For Screenwriters

Literary devices.

Literary Elements

  • Deuteragonist
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Literary Techniques

  • Alliteration
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What is a visual metaphor?

Visual metaphor definition.

Before we dive into visual metaphor examples, it’s important to understand how visual metaphors differ from other literary devices ? What makes them unique? How do you spot and interpret a metaphor? The answer starts with the visual metaphor definition.

VISUAL METAPHOR DEFINITION

A visual metaphor is a representation of a noun through a visual image that suggests a particular association or similarity. Visual metaphors are commonly found in film, television shows, photography and even commercial ads.

The meaning created from these objects can help move a story forward, relate to an audience or consumer, or establish a theme.

Visual metaphor examples:

  • Workers killed like cattle in Strike
  • Kissing in front of fireworks in Aladdin
  • Shower drain shot in Psycho

Metaphors in movies

The function of visual metaphors.

The function of visual metaphors depends greatly on what it is being used in. For example, the goal of advertisements is to persuade a consumer while the goal of a film may be to entertain an audience. Both, however, rely on the engagement of the audience. 

To properly engage an audience, a filmmaker must communicate both effectively and efficiently. Visual metaphors are perfect for this reason. They help convey meaning through the simple presence of a visual. 

The art of the metaphor  •  What is a visual metaphor?

As mentioned in the video, the precision of metaphors cannot be understated. Visual metaphors, therefore, are a filmmaker's best friend at communicating to an audience. To better understand the function of a visual metaphor, let’s focus on a specific and effective example. 

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What is a Visual Metaphor Used For?

Establish characters.

Visual metaphors are great for quickly establishing a character without extensive exposition or on-the-nose characterizing action like saving a cat.

Apocalypse Now has one of the most famous opening sequences of all time. Why? Sure, there’s legendary cinematography , jaw-dropping practical effects , and an instantly iconic needle-drop , but there’s also a great visual metaphor.

If the scene isn’t already permanently etched into your brain, brush up on it below:

Apocalypse Now  •  visual metaphor examples

Here, director Francis Ford Coppola uses superimposition to create a visual metaphor: Captain Willard’s face is shown over imagery of an active conflict. With this visual metaphor, we instantly understand Willard’s mental state: this is a man broken by the Vietnam War. All this without a single word.

Let’s write out the metaphor to make it clearer: “Captain Willard’s head is a warzone.” This can help us differentiate what makes a characterizing visual metaphor versus a characterizing symbol .

A famous symbol in this vein is Cameron’s father’s car in Ferris Bueller's Day Off . In the film, his father’s car represents his relationship with his father, and as the film progresses, his attitude toward the car shifts accordingly.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off - Visual Metaphor Examples

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off  •  Visual Metaphor Examples

But the car doesn’t work as a visual metaphor because it can’t be directly compared to anything, it simply represents a larger theme. We can’t write out the car symbol as we did the Apocalypse Now metaphor: “Cameron’s father’s car is his relationship with his father” doesn’t make much sense, and isn’t really clarifying.

Of course, this doesn’t mean a visual metaphor is any better or worse than a symbol. They’re just different.

Personify themes

In the beginning of the film The Shawshank Redemption , we are introduced to an older inmate named Brooks Hatlen (SPOILERS AHEAD). Brooks has a pet bird that he keeps in his cardigan pocket. He feeds and nurtures the bird. 

The image of the bird being fed within a coat pocket is shocking because birds are typically flying free. While this visual metaphor may not be obvious at first, it becomes more apparent when we understand one of the film’s themes — the dependence of prisoners on the institution

Brooks Attacks Heywood  •  Visual metaphor examples

As the film goes on and we better understand Brooks' relationship and dependence on the prison system, the visual metaphor of the bird becomes more thematic. The ending voice over narration even says “Some birds aren’t meant to be caged, their feathers are just too bright.” This brings full circle the visual metaphor of Brook’s bird to Andy’s freedom.

Visual metaphors are an incredibly effective tool when used with intention. Understanding what you want to communicate through a visual metaphor will be a great place to start. Then work backwards to what object or image will function as your visual metaphor. 

Next time you watch a film, be sure to make note of objects that filmmakers use as visual metaphors and pay attention to how they are incorporated into the film.

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Intellectual Montage

Visual metaphors can be used to heighten the power of editing. Sergei Eisenstein knew this perhaps better than anyone else. The Soviet director pioneered the intellectual montage , which used editing to juxtapose seemingly unrelated images and create visual metaphors.

Eisenstein applied Hegelian/Marxist dialectic theory to filmmaking; essentially, montage could create a thesis, antithesis, and, finally, synthesis. The power in this approach, Eisenstein believed, was that instead of instructing the audience what to think, film could get the audience to organically arrive at a conclusion themselves.

So what does all of this mean, and how does it relate to visual metaphor? Let’s look at one of Eisenstein’s most famous sequences from Strike :

Strike visual metaphor

Here, Eisenstein pares footage of workers being killed by soldiers with cattle being killed at a slaughterhouse. Through editing, Eisenstein creates a visual metaphor: the workers are being killed like cattle.

This metaphor informs one of the themes of Strike : the Tsarist regime was an enemy of the proletariat. Furthermore, just as it is the slaughterhouse’s job to kill cows, it was the imperial army’s job to persecute workers; it’s simply the nature of their sociopolitical position. Thus, the two parties could only exist in conflict.

A bit heady, right? If Eisenstein tried to spell this out explicitly, he’d most likely lose the audience. But by viscerally depicting it through a visual metaphor, he is prompting the audience to arrive at the conclusion themselves, whether they know it or not.

Eisenstein’s use of intellectual montage, and visual metaphor, made him one of the most important filmmakers of all time. To this day, directors still borrow from his movies and theoretical writing. His work’s longevity proves that visual metaphors are certainly worth your time.

Types of metaphors and examples

Visual metaphors are only one type of metaphor employed by screenwriters and filmmakers. Learn about other types of metaphors in our next article where we break down iconic examples that will help spark ideas for your next project. 

Up Next: Metaphors explained →

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The Visual Experience of Image Metaphor: Cognitive Insights into Imagist Figures

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Daniel W. Gleason; The Visual Experience of Image Metaphor: Cognitive Insights into Imagist Figures. Poetics Today 1 September 2009; 30 (3): 423–470. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/03335372-2009-002

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In this essay I investigate how image metaphors—metaphors that link one concrete object to another, such as “her spread hand was a starfish”—promote visualization in the reader. Focusing on image metaphors in Imagist poetry, I assert that the two terms (e.g., the hand and the starfish) of many of these metaphors are similar in shape and that this “structural correspondence” encourages the reader to visualize those metaphors. Readers may spontaneously form a “visual template,” a schematic middle ground that mediates between those similar shapes, in order to smoothly move between the two images within each metaphor. The structural correspondence and the mediating visual template allow readers to mentally shift back and forth between the two images, yet readers cannot fuse the two terms through visual imagery. Research supports these claims: reader reports have demonstrated that subjects understand image metaphors primarily through their physical features, and work on the visual interpretation of ambiguous figures suggests that though one cannot fuse images together, one may switch back and forth between multiple images of a figure, especially if the images share the same frame of reference. These findings indicate that readers may be particularly likely to understand image metaphor through visual imagery, especially when the terms of the metaphor correspond physically. This essay is drawn from a larger project on the “poetics of literary visualization”—a part-by-part investigation of the formal features of texts that elicit visual imagery. Such an account helps reveal the workings of the visual imagination and restore critical attention to this neglected aspect of the reading experience.

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A worthy contribution in the still-growing efforts to de-silo theory from practice in writing and teaching about contemporary art, Mark Staff Brandl’s A Philosophy of Visual Metaphor in Contemporary Art is approachable and informal while being specific and sincere, and a tonal success for the way it loosens up and shakes out the rhetoric, jargon, and tropes common to so much scholarly writing about art. Visual tropes and metaphors (as opposed to literary ones) are central protagonists in Brandl’s philosophy of art, and they anchor his major propositions about the mechanics of visual communication and interpretation. They are not glib or surface facsimiles of legitimate cultural knowledge, but rather, “discovered and built out of revisions of cultural possibilities, in fact, fought for and won” (6), a crystalline thesis which lands Brandl’s theory of art in an obvious historical dialogue with Kant and ontology, particularly the idea that the material conditions of possibility are not necessarily predicated on existence; they can be thought into reality, just as concretely and just as well. This metaphysical understanding of the cultural tangibility of visual metaphors also aligns Brandl’s text with trending contemporary art practices engaged in the concepts of world-building, reality construction, and parafiction.   

Dense, obscure, theoretical language has dominated art history, critical theory, and the pictorial turn for decades, such that it is now its own kind of trope. This writing style has thankfully receded in recent years due to the efforts of a few emerging scholars. Brandl is a more established voice in the field, but he asserts that while high theory has long ruled literature and art departments respectively (2), the usable fusion of philosophy with art interpretation has not yet entered its mature phase, and that this provides one of the rationales for the publication of the book (21). On the maturation point I disagree—post-structuralist art analysis and methods have certainly seen their heyday in academia—but I am nonetheless happy for the other expansions that Brandl offers.

One particular expansion involves moving the linguistic and semiotic analysis of images beyond the domain of advertising images, which has historically been the origin point along the art-philosophy axis. Roland Barthes’s 1964 essay “Rhetoric of the Image” was the pacesetter for a significant wave of scholarship (and for a while, entire academic departments) devoted to semiotics, their influence peaking in the late 1980s. Art turned to language during these decades for some shiny new methodologies, and philosophy turned to aesthetics, and it is from this late twentieth century disciplinary swapping of source materials that a different set of intellectual silos were built to store theories about the comparative and distinct functions of image versus text. Quoting abstract painter William Conger, Brandl asserts in Chapter four (overall one of the book’s strongest chapters) that the chief function of text is to “eliminate” ambiguity, whereas “the visual is always ambiguous. It cannot be unambiguous” (86). For an abstract painter, this is probably largely true. But is it true for, say, anything Warhol or Judd ever claimed about their own work? While it does help as an initial heuristic to set language and image apart to examine their components and limits, it cannot be responsibly said that text always drives toward specificity and monosemy, and that images always retreat from it.

Brandl’s book feels in this respect like a holdover from the golden era of semiotics, with more utility as an explication of philosophy via art than as a working theory of contemporary art. It feels even more so this way with each reference to contemporary art as a coherent unit that might be served wholesale by this guide, as if to suggest that contemporary art is isolable and definable sheerly by virtue being visual as opposed to textual. But is it? Any serious student of contemporary art knows deeply its multivalency and categorical resistance to being one or anything in particular, even necessarily visual. To treat contemporary art as a monolith that can withstand and absorb across-the-board analysis therefore draws suspicion. Brandl does recognize that abundance and multivalence of metaphorical readings are important to a lot of contemporary art, even possibly contributing to its significance and its degree of “wonderfulness” (20). But this is still an unwieldly generalization considering the efforts of minimalist and conceptualist artists who sought to pare down or evacuate metaphor entirely—efforts which the author insists through the example of Lawrence Weiner are both impossible and wrongheaded (33). Some historians of conceptualist and minimalist art would beg to differ: not that that eliminating all referentiality is a fool’s errand, but that it is never quite that simple.

Metaphor, the author points out, is both a detour and a destination, a turning toward and a turning around, both of and about something. This is what makes it so instrumental toward understanding art. The experience of what a particular artwork conjures in a viewer and the specific form it takes are distinct but interwoven elements. It might move Brandl’s theory into even more productive philosophical territory to discuss certain art works that “feel” like what they aim to represent—not just present an idea about it, which would be the domain of pure cognition, but which produce something else beyond cognition: a bodily or sensory or haptic or uncanny effect, or the thing that Joseph Kosuth wrote in Art After Philosophy And After makes art, art and everything else, everything else. My mind goes initially to Bruce Nauman’s Waxing Hot , Yoko Ono’s textual propositions in Grapefruit , Robert Irwin’s discs, Mickalene Thomas’s Something You Can Feel , any one of Rachel Harrison’s polystyrene sculptures. Speaking of Harrison, here is Maggie Nelson in The Paris Review in 2020, honing a point that A Philosophy of Visual Metaphor in Contemporary Art reaches for throughout, but doesn’t quite capture as succinctly: “Harrison’s sculptures are remarkable for their capacity to stir up the primal agitation at the root of cognition and analysis, the whir of thinking.”

“The whir of thinking” could also characterize Brandl’s entire book as an intellectual and didactic exercise. Ultimately, it is useful for artists who, like the author, seek a roadmap for how to imagine a methodological bridge between analytic philosophy and imagery, “a theoretical apparatus for understanding the struggles of contemporary artists and their achievements, at once both intellectual in tangible, in using visual metaphors” (94). From an art historian’s perspective, much of the book reads like a statement of methods rather than their full explication. On the plus side of its teachability, however, the book breezily moves through dense concepts from analytic philosophy, not by surgically defining precise terms or historicizing their usage as would be the charge of traditional academic studies, but by applying them economically to specific and varietal objects. The cartoons that serve as epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter, also authored by Brandl, are wordy infographic illustrations that mostly recapitulate the ideas in the text. They may serve as useful teaching tools or not, depending on one’s relationship to other famous diagrams of art history and their tendency to either illuminate or occlude comprehension, joining Rosalind Krauss’s map in “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” Alfred Barr’s Cubism and Abstract Art , the golden rectangle, the Vitruvian Man , and so on.

Speaking of artists and utility: in a chapter subtitled “paint, to paint, a painting, painting,” Brandl does not directly address but still invokes a famous scholarly debate between philosopher Martin Heidegger, art historian Meyer Schapiro, and alpha-deconstructionist spoilsport Jacques Derrida on a painting (which painting?) by Van Gogh, of his (or were they a peasant woman’s?) shoes. Derrida arrives last to lift the veil, to show how deconstructionism takes the polysemy of language and uses it to lube up the friction between reality and representation. In French, peinture (painting) is one vowel and infinite reference points away from pointure (verb), alternately meaning pointing, pricking, puncturing, and a tool used in bootmaking. The dictionary definition of pointure serves as one of three epigraphs that begin the essay. The other two are quotes about truth and painting authored by Cézanne and Van Gogh, which alternately speak about truth in art as something which is either existential and communicable, or metaphysical and immanent. It is a brilliant, near-infographic distillation of Kantian analytic philosophy via art delivered in three short pull quotes, and it lingers unaddressed in the background of Brandl’s text and its attempts to communicate more or less the same. The linguistic coincidence of peinture and pointure , the extremely tight neighborliness between the real and the represented, is the armature around which Derrida builds an entire rebuttal and correspondent theory of art, sending the high-minded tête-à-tête crashing back down to the concrete object of the shoes, permanently. “It was materiality the whole time!” the artist laughs in the distance. Even the language was the material. The representation was always the real thing.

Brynn Hatton Kindler Family Assistant Professor in Global Contemporary Art Department of Art and Art History Colgate University

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Visual Storytelling

An Introduction to Visual Metaphors

visual metaphor essay

Metaphors are a common figure of speech where a word or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to imply a resemblance. Metaphors are also a common technique in visuals, particular print advertisements, and PSAs. Visual metaphors are highly structured images that stimulate viewers to understand one concept in terms of another concept. They are a potent weapon in the communication professional’s arsenal.

If you’d like a compact five-minute overview of visual metaphors, please check out my Ignite presentation below:

https://quinnipiac.voicethread.com/share/13050123/

My presentation includes photos I took from Unsplash . My thanks to the following:

  • Ilkka Kärkkäinen (slide #1)
  • Aaron Burden (slide #2)
  • Kyle Hanson (slide #3)

Gkiouzepas, L., & Hogg, M. K. (2011). Articulating a new framework for visual metaphors in advertising. Journal of Advertising, 40 (1), 103-120. doi:10.2753/JOA0091-3367400107

An in-depth understanding of visual metaphor with famous examples . Retrieved from https://penlighten.com/understanding-visual-metaphor-with-examples

Jeong, S. (2008). Visual metaphor in advertising: Is the persuasive effect attributable to visual argumentation or metaphorical rhetoric? Journal of Marketing Communications, 14 (1), 59-73. doi:10.1080/14697010701717488

Joy, A., Sherry, J. F., & Deschenes, J. (2009). Conceptual blending in advertising. Journal of Business Research, 62 (1), 39-49. doi:10.1016/j.jbusres.2007.11.015

Mohanty, P. (., & Ratneshwar, S. (2015). Did you get it? factors influencing subjective comprehension of visual metaphors in advertising. Journal of Advertising, 44 (3), 232-242. doi:10.1080/00913367.2014.967424

Ortiz, M. J. (2010). Visual rhetoric: Primary metaphors and symmetric object alignment. Metaphor and Symbol, 25 (3), 162-180. doi:10.1080/10926488.2010.489394

Phillips, B. J., & McQuarrie, E. F. (2004). Beyond visual metaphor: A new typology of visual rhetoric in advertising. Marketing Theory, 4 (1-2), 113-136. doi:10.1177/1470593104044089

Scott, L. M. (1994). Images in advertising: The need for a theory of visual rhetoric. Journal of Consumer Research, 21 (2), 252-273. doi:10.1086/209396

Shan, C., Yu, M., & Xue, K. (2017). Effects of metaphor advertising on brand extension evaluation: Construal level as mediator. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal, 45 (6), 967-985. doi:10.2224/sbp.5962

van Mulken, M., van Hooft, A., & Nederstigt, U. (2014). Finding the tipping point: Visual metaphor and conceptual complexity in advertising. Journal of Advertising, 43 (4), 333-343. doi:10.1080/00913367.2014.920283

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7 thoughts on “ an introduction to visual metaphors ”.

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Your presentation blew me away! Being that it was a unique topic, I was excited to learn something new. I think you did a great job staying on theme while introduction a lot of new lessons. All of your images flow very nicely with your presentation and helps the viewers really follow along with each topic. They were clear and easy to interpret images for each example.

I’d suggest for your essay to break down each different metaphor into each topic to expand on. You also really go into how people use failed metaphors and possibly relate it to the topic of ‘emotions by accident.’

You can also use the Gestalt principals for interpreting the metaphors in each ad. I’m wondering if you can also mention emotions using colors as well since a metaphor is partly about interpreting something based on culture. Question, will you only be talking specifically about advertisements, or are you discussing other visuals as well?

Overall I can tell you’ve done your research and I’m looking forward to reading your paper! I can already tell that it will have a great flow because of how focused and structured your presentation was.

Best of luck!

The above comment from nrmartinelli is Natalie Martinelli!

I will start off with the first things that come to mind – your timing, pace, and cadence are all awesome! I’m not sure if you film how-to’s or tutorial videos, but you seem like you’d be great at it.

The way you introduce your topic and define what a visual metaphor is is attention-grabbing, and you use excellent examples to illustrate how ads can utilize the various ways to present visual metaphors – juxtaposition, fusion, and replacement.

Because visual metaphors aren’t meant to be interpreted literally, and because “the image deviates from our expectations,” I thought it was interesting that viewers/consumers get a kick out of making inferences and solving the riddles that are hidden in visual metaphors (also, good job on the process of how we understand metaphors and describing strong implicature versus weak implicature).

You’re right when you say that creating visual metaphors is often a challenge because it requires having some sort of common cultural understanding and context – I imagine that this is especially challenging for global brands that cater to wider audience.

You mention that content and advertisements that include visual metaphors tend to do better than ads that don’t include them, and given your commentary, I can understand why this is. I hope that in your essay, you include examples of how companies have used visual metaphors effectively (which you’ve done), and perhaps instances where they failed. I’m not sure if the Tasmanian water/beer ad was an example of this, but I do think the marketers behind that ad were stretching…or maybe I’m just not the right audience.

Hi Michael,

Your presentation is the one that I enjoyed the most so far. The topic of your presentation is not only fascinating but, accompanied with excellent visuals, puts some controversy in the spotlight while the slideshow goes. This “twist” really keeps viewers amused and connected to your talk. But my perception noticed controversy even before that point. I thought about our recent class discussion about visual stories that evoke different emotions than the ones they portray. For example, a warm “A touch and done” ad evokes an unpleasant feeling. I realized that my perception is coming from my own experience with bees and push start button. We had a group of kids stung by bees in my daycare with I was a child as we tried to play with a nest. The push button start in a rental car was a horrible experience because I drove Subarus for many years; it does not seem like Subaru engineers consider that feature useful. As you defined in your introduction, “Visual metaphors are highly structured images that stimulate viewers to understand one concept in terms of another concept.” As Safwat Choudhury described in his blog post, “Another level of emotional response, which is also unconscious, is behavioral level design; this is a learned because it incorporates our past experiences.” So it happened accidentally that one of my negative experience with the concept of bees is linked to another poor experience with a push button start. I wonder how my perception would change if one of these experiences was positive.

I’m glad that you did not just read the prewritten text copy like I heard in some other presentation. Even if you did, your narrative sounds organic and confident, like you are talking to the audience, not just reading your story monotonously. Some other presentations were hard to comprehend as their narrative was not adjusted for the ear. We studied differences in writing for the ear versus writing for the eye in our Writing for Interactive media class, and I pointed in my blog post that “When you write for print, you might not even realize how it sounds when somebody attempts to read it aloud. But I always read any text copy written to the ear. If it seems natural to vocalize, without your tongue twisting at any point, it means, this copy is ready for listeners.”

Thank you for a very informative presentation.

Michael, What a presentation! I was blown away by your ease of presenting a topic that has limited studies and the way you discussed it. I love a good metaphor, but I haven’t even thought about how we likely use visual metaphors more than we realize. It was helpful that you included the definition of visual metaphors and how they are useful, “Visual metaphors are highly structured images that stimulate viewers to understand one concept in terms of another concept. They are a potent weapon in the communication professional’s arsenal.”

Before your presentation, I had no idea that there are 3 types of visual metaphors. I thought the visual examples of juxtaposed images were really interesting. My favorite images that you shared were the Passat elk image and the football player image for Chevrolet that acted as a metaphor for their park assist product.

You made a great point in that the viewers need to understand what they are viewing and create a theory. At first, the image of the man on the dock with the big dog with the tiny head was also lost on me. After reviewing the image further, I noticed the slogan talking about how the water is better. Your comment about the stick is what helped me to realize that of course, the dog was swimming with his head above the water.

I look forward to reading your paper about visual metaphors. I think you found some great examples that work, but I would love to see examples of metaphors that don’t work. If you could find similar examples but where one does a great job versus one that fails, that would be a good approach.

Juxtaposition, fusion, and replacement — three types of visual metaphors in advertising. Your presentation was structured perfectly, with a clear introduction, great examples and descriptions, and a well-formed conclusion to tie it all together. It was very easy and, therefore, engaging to follow your narrative arch.

While you were going through your examples, I was really surprised how oblivious I am to these visual metaphors that surround me. Just looking on my coffee table, I see several visual metaphors from magazines and one from a birthday card.

Your analyses were well thought out and you go through a number of examples so good job with that!

What I enjoyed most was in your conclusion, where you discuss how visual metaphors rely on our understanding across a vast expanse of information. This is something that has been a common theme throughout this program — that perception relies heavily on learned and environmental experiences.

You suggest that it is difficult to make good advertisements using visual metaphors and you are right — you really only get one shot for the audience to understand it. If no one gets it, it’s not very effective (which is how I felt about the VW and the bee example).

You chose a very interesting topic. I had never really thought much about visual metaphors until your presentation. After watching it, I can’t help but think that we see visual metaphors practically every day and just don’t realize it. You took a topic, I’ve never really seen talked about outside of a classroom and made it incredibly interesting. The pictures you used worked so well with the flow of the presentation. They also made you think. In the picture with the dog with the small head, I had no idea what it was talking about until you dove more in-depth with it and explained what it was all about.

You had a very good flow of the presentation. It seemed to me as if you were just talking and not really reading off a script. In my opinion, that’s what makes a good presentation, great. You have the voice for this type of presentation too. When I first started your video, I clicked away to open up a notes tab and I couldn’t place the voice. This being the second class we’ve had together I thought I’d know your voice, but nope. There was a slight change in it, which really worked with this type of presentation. There were one or two you flubbed your words and could have gone back and redo it, but all-in-all a great presentation. I can’t wait to read the finished product.

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Top-Quality Guide On Visual Metaphors 2022

4 min read • Martín Etchegoyen

In today’s digital world, visuals are a necessity, not a luxury or a disposable thing. The spread of smartphones and social media has made them an essential part of communication. Visual is the broad term for anything we look at, from photographs to illustrations, videos, etc., that are used for communication. Visuals are a more effective and efficient means of communication than the written word, and visual metaphors are one of the many tools that a designer needs to succeed in this career.

We are visual learners, and we correlate seeing with the truth.  Our brains process visuals a lot of times faster than text, and most of the information transmitted to the brain is visual. Not surprisingly, we remember approximately 80 percent of what we see compared to 20 percent of what we read and only 10 percent of what we hear. Compelling images account for 94 percent more views than content without images.  

That is why visuals are a ubiquitous presence in our lives. The challenge facing communication professionals is how to make their message stand out. Visual metaphors offer an opportunity to penetrate clutter and reach an audience in a more efficient way than other tools.

Visual Metaphors

Designers are constantly working with metaphor, often without realizing how much of a role it plays in their practice. This is not surprising, though. Metaphor is an inherently human tool that helps people make sense of the world, and so it is a natural material for designers to play with. Without an awareness of how we are using a metaphor, we miss out on its full potential, such as its ability to spark conversations about change. This is particularly important for design leaders, who are trying to influence organizations to bring a customer focus into decision-making.

Visual Metaphors

Trying to be more intentional in your use of metaphor can help elevate your design practice. Visual metaphors are visual tropes. They are highly structured images that stimulate viewers to understand one concept in terms of another idea. Visual metaphors perform better than verbal metaphors in advertising. The reason why this happens is very simple. The inclusion of the visual eases comprehension because viewers do not need to create mental images. Visual metaphors are more common than you might think. According to research on the subject, slightly more than three out of ten print ads contain visual metaphors.

Interpretation of Visual Metaphors

Visual metaphors are not read literally. They always require interpretation and always have a specific connotation. Visual metaphors deviate from viewer expectations. It is the unanticipated deviation that causes viewers to think figuratively and make inferences about the advertisement’s intended meaning. What viewers do is find the first plausible meaning that seems relevant to the message.

Think of visual metaphors as puzzles. When we see them, we instinctively need to solve them. In our quest to solve the puzzle, we are going to be lazy and use as little energy as possible. We are also going to assume that the amount of effort it takes to solve the puzzle equals the amount of reward we will gain from finding the solution.

Receivers are inclined to expend as little effort as possible to understand the message and at the same time, they will try to gain as much effect as possible from the message by processing it. In other words, receivers expect that the more processing costs a message require, the more effective it will be.

Visual Metaphors

Viewers trade cognitive effort for information and pleasure, the satisfaction gained from finding the visual’s meaning. This exchange of cognitive effort for information and pleasure is visual metaphors’ value for advertisers. It is also an inherent risk because the information and pleasure effect is contingent on viewers ascertaining the visual’s intended meaning, therefore solving the puzzle. Without the payoff, visual metaphors can frustrate viewers and can be a brand liability.

In visual metaphor research, when an audience can easily understand an advertisement’s meaning, it is called strong implicature. On the other hand, it is called weak implicature when an audience has difficulty finding meaning.

4 Types of Visual Metaphors

In this section, we will go into detail about four types of visual metaphors : juxtaposition, fusion, fusion, and replacement. The four types have different levels of complexity based on the number of inferences viewers need to make to come to an acceptable conclusion.

1. Juxtaposition

Juxtaposition, also called similes, includes two images side-by-side. The visual includes the product or target next to what it is being compared with, or the source. Juxtaposition can be defined as taking two objects, themes, or materials and combining them or placing them together to create a striking contrast. In interior design, this can be interpreted as adopting two different styles, such as rustic and ultramodern, within the same space, for example.

2. Anchoring

This activity is called “anchoring,” It provides advertisers with a lifeline to ensure viewers understand the metaphor and the ad’s message. Almost every visual metaphor includes a text anchor to explain the metaphor’s puzzle if viewers cannot work it out for themselves. The desire for text anchors makes sense. Text anchors are a double-edged sword for advertisers. They are proven to aid in viewer understanding but decreased consumer pleasure in interpreting the message

Fusion, also known as hybrid or synthesis, combines the product or target with what it is being compared with to form a single visual element, which is called gestalt.

4. Replacement

The final and most complex type of visual metaphor is a replacement. Replacement happens when either the product or what it is being compared to is absent. Replacement is also called a contextual metaphor because it relies on context for viewers to find or infer meaning.

Final Thoughts

Visual metaphors are an excellent tool for UX design . If you understand how to use them properly, your work will be understood in a much faster way and it will get to more people. With the information on this blog, you are now able to start experimenting in the field of visual metaphors .

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Visual Metaphor in Advertising: 20 Examples from Top Brands

visual metaphor essay

Visual metaphor in advertising pertains to graphics that associate a thing or person that represents a concept or idea. The overall composition of these images is meant to symbolize something else. The outcome? Truly remarkable and powerful imagery that opens up visual interest. Using visual metaphors in advertising gives your audience a unique visual experience. Here are 20 visual metaphor examples for inspiration.

visual metaphor advertising example

Braun is known for a wide product range of epilators, razors, and products for your hair grooming and removal needs. Well, Braun sure knows how to symbolize hair by replacing it with noodles. 

Featuring their hair straightener product, Braun banks on visual metaphor to show how it does the trick. The hair iron shows how it straightens the noodles from their curled-up form inside the packaging. It shows that Braun products can straighten even the curliest hair.

visual metaphor advertising example

At first glance, you’ll notice the small Tabasco bottle. But as you look at the image’s entirety, you can see that there’s a hose, nozzle, pin, and pressure gauge attached to it. The entire visual displays a fire extinguisher. 

This visual metaphor from Tabasco depicts how this small bottle can be extremely hot. The fire extinguisher illustrates how one might need it to put out the “fire,” or in other words, if they can’t handle the heat. 

visual metaphor advertising example

This is a straightforward graphic that has a lot of significance behind it. It doesn’t take rocket science to create something brilliant. And Nivea knows how to play it cool with simplicity. 

Promoting their night cream, Nivea presents a half-opened bottle, exposing the cream inside the can. However, the cream resembles a half-moon, which symbolizes “night.” A brilliant way to represent the brand’s product. 

4. Volkswagen Beetle Denim

visual metaphor advertising example

Motorists were in for a treat as Volkswagen released their Beetle Denim models. These vehicles feature unique accents and interiors not found in any regular Beetle. The interior features light blue denim seating and jeans-inspired backseat pockets. 

One way to promote your unique product design and branding is to feature it front and center. The seams remind you of the dashed lines that you see in the middle of the road. Volkswagen paints a picture in viewers’ minds about taking their new Beetle on a long drive. 

5. BusConnects

visual metaphor advertising example

BusConnects is a program that helps Irish cities improve bus services and make public transport sustainable. This propaganda is for a cleaner and greener Dublin. But why use a Rubik’s Cube? 

As you know, a Rubik’s Cube is solved when all colors are placed on one side of the cube. And it would take good analysis and strategy to achieve it. BusConnects shows that achieving a cleaner and greener city would need the people’s collective effort. 

6. Save the Children

visual metaphor advertising example

Save the Children features an impactful visual metaphor with this design. For their anti-violence campaign, they advocate how abusive parents could lead children to alcohol addiction.

The imagery shows a child encapsulated in a tree’s “root.” But the tree is represented by a woman, who is seemingly the mother. Overall, the graphics symbolize that every bad experience is ingrained in every child from the early stages — just like a seed. 

7. Tropicana

visual metaphor advertising example

Tropicana is your go-to brand when you’re craving orange juice. Orange juice can be a good addition to a meal or a great refreshment on a sunny afternoon. But Tropicana claims orange juice is more than just orange juice. 

The brand wants consumers to ensure their daily intake of orange juice because it’s a complete breakfast. And the brand plays a clever visual metaphor by shaping an orange into a toast to resemble breakfast. Plus, Tropicana implies that the meal will be complete with a drink of their tasty orange juice.

8. Burger King

visual metaphor advertising example

Burger King communicates with its audience through a visual metaphor during Easter. Since the hamburger fast-food chain is open during Easter, they turned a burger to its side to resemble the shape of an egg. A perfect representation of the traditional Easter Sunday egg hunting. 

9. McDonald’s

visual metaphor advertising example

Here’s another example of a visual metaphor in advertising that banks on simplicity. McDonald’s is known for its innovative advertising designs , and this one is no exception. 

To show consumers that the fast-food giant is open 24/7, they showcase nocturnal animals with their eyes shining brightly. However, they’re not an ordinary set of eyes. The eyes are the McDonald’s logo split in half. This is an ideal way to promote your offer while staying on brand. 

10. World Wildlife Fund

visual metaphor advertising example

WWF leaves no stone unturned in protecting voiceless animals. More often than not, they do it through thought-provoking and compelling marketing designs. WWF is known for its unorthodox visuals in advertising. 

Take this Jenga advertisement, for example. WWF compares the ecosystem to Jenga. Jenga is a game that involves pulling blocks carefully without knocking down the entire structure, which is a great challenge. WWF shows how the ecosystem will come crashing down when an animal species is eliminated. 

visual metaphor advertising example

Although it has been kicked out of the spotlight, Nokia reinvented visual metaphors in advertising during its prime days. And this particular one is a perfect example!

With a wide range of mobile phone models, Nokia relaunched a specific one solely focused on music. It was Nokia’s relaunch of the XpressMusic phone. The mobile phone company claimed that it was like having all your favorite tunes in the palm of your hand. A guitar on a hand shows how accessible music is on a portable gadget.

visual metaphor advertising example

Double meanings are also an excellent way to engage your audience’s minds and encourage fun at the same time. It’s an outstanding achievement when you can convey two different concepts in one image. And Diniz achieved that through their eyewear collection promotion. 

Launching their summer eyewear pieces, Diniz used tropical fruits and shaped them into sunglasses. The fruits represent how timely the sunglasses are for the sunny weather. Plus, the fruits’ shadows are also shaped according to different eyewear styles.

13. Jordan Insurance Company

visual metaphor advertising example

Visual metaphor in marketing is both bizarre and captivating. Achieving success in this department means stimulating the minds of your viewers. Here’s one example from the Jordan Insurance Company that’s both bizarre and captivating. 

Viewers might not get the ad’s concept at first glance. But you need to look at it hard enough to understand the message it communicates. It means wearing a helmet for safety is the smartest thing to do. But some motorists are too complacent about not locking their helmet securely. This ad means if you don’t lock the helmet straps, the helmet serves no purpose to protect your head.

14. Tic Tac

visual metaphor advertising example

Another clever marketing design from the famous candy brand Tic Tac. There might not be a lot going on in this visual, but the message is there. It means that you’re never too sure when special moments happen. 

That’s why you should always carry your Tic Tac container with you because you’ll never know when someone’s going to lean in and kiss you! And that’s not all, the negative space in the middle of the lips is also shaped like a Tic Tac candy. 

15. United Nations

visual metaphor advertising example

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the normal that people were once used to. We now have to keep our distance and practice safety measures by washing our hands. The less interaction we have with other people, the lower our chances of contracting the deadly virus. 

The United Nations wants to remind people to keep their distance while poking fun at their audience and keeping the imagery lighthearted. They released a series of designs with simple images of two things. These two things, when put together, could lead to destruction or damage. Here’s an example of a cactus and a balloon. You know what happens next when both things are kept in close proximity to each other. 

16. First Call

visual metaphor advertising example

Emotional marketing is also essential in creating advertisements that tug at people’s heartstrings. Moreover, making your visual metaphor a little bit dramatic can also help in conveying your message. 

Here’s one campaign from First Call, an addiction and recovery hotline. As you know, pills can be detrimental to your health over time. First Call made their message clear about how people shouldn’t be reliant on pills. The brand displays a coffin in every compartment to depict that relying on pills could damage your health, leading to your demise.

17. Floslek

visual metaphor advertising example

Another figure of speech that can also be used in visual metaphor advertising is hyperbole. Hyperbole means exaggerating a person or thing and making it seem bigger or better. Floslek is a sunblock brand that magnifies the imagery in this particular example. 

They placed the colossal sunblock behind beachgoers to show that it protects their skin from the heat of the sun. Plus, they situated it along the beach to show that the sunblock is water-resistant. 

visual metaphor advertising example

People who are constantly moving from one home to another could be living “in a box.” IKEA reminds people that living in a box isn’t all that bad, especially if you buy the brand’s high-quality and affordable products.

IKEA tells homeowners to “Unbox your life” by buying from this ready-to-assemble and affordable furniture brand. The ad shows a simple contrast between other habitants seemingly living a dull and boxed life. The colors symbolize IKEA’s way of making your life more fun and exciting. 

19. TriHonda

visual metaphor advertising example

You must also try to bank on copy to create compelling ads that make people think. TriHonda has a lovely message for drivers to never be on their phones while driving. In this ad, you’ll see the words “GIRL” and “EMAIL” combined in one line with different colors.

At first glance, you can’t decipher both words. This signifies that it’s hard to see pedestrians crossing when you’re using mobile phones while driving. And this could lead to disaster. So TriHonda reminds drivers to either stop the vehicle when they check their phone or focus on the road.

visual metaphor advertising example

Thinx is a brand that sells underwear for women with periods. If you’re not able to represent your product literally, using symbols is an excellent way to get your message across. Thinx achieved this by using the half-peeled grapefruit as a symbol of a vagina. It’s a feminine and visually communicative way to promote lingerie without going overboard.

Visual metaphor in advertising is becoming common in brands’ marketing campaigns. Not only are visual metaphors unique, but they also drive more engagement due to their unusual imagery. 

But visual metaphors in marketing aren’t easy to deliver. You’d need the help of professional graphic designers for that. Penji can help you create unique and interesting visual metaphor designs, like these 20 examples. Subscribe now and get a limited 15-percent discount. 

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COMMENTS

  1. Definition and Examples of Visual Metaphors

    Richard Nordquist Updated on February 03, 2018 A visual metaphor is the representation of a person, place, thing, or idea by means of a visual image that suggests a particular association or point of similarity. It's also known as pictorial metaphor and analogical juxtaposition. Use of Visual Metaphor in Modern Advertising

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    Definition Effectiveness Examples What is a visual metaphor? A visual metaphor uses the pictorial representation of an object to suggest an association or similarity. Visual metaphors contain only images and are found in art, advertisements, film, and television.

  3. An Introduction to Visual Metaphors

    An Introduction to Visual Metaphors: Essay By Michael Wright In today's digital landscape, visuals are a necessity, not a luxury or an accoutrement. The spread of smartphones and social media has made them an essential part of communication.

  4. Visual Metaphor, Cultural Knowledge, and the New Rhetoric

    Visual metaphors need to be seriously studied and understood in the host cultures of North America. Notes. 1 The study of art through history is the study of visual metaphors. This essay provides examples of such metaphors and it is argued that those insights derived from verbal metaphors can also be found in visual metaphors.

  5. 5 Visual Metaphors to Understand Academic Writing

    5 Visual Metaphors to Understand Academic Writing Is the concept of academic writing difficult for you? Let's try to make sense out of it by using fun pictures. And here is the first one: Skeleton ( Outline) You are probably wondering, "What does a skeleton have to do with writing?"

  6. Visual Metaphor

    Visual Metaphor These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves. Chapter PDF Download to read the full chapter text Notes

  7. Visual Metaphor

    Visual Metaphor Published online by Cambridge University Press: 19 January 2010 Noël Carroll Chapter Get access Share Cite Summary INTRODUCING VISUAL METAPHOR It is the contention of this essay that there are visual metaphors.

  8. Interpreting Visual Metaphors: Asymmetry and Reversibility

    This essay argues that the visual metaphors can appear to be symmetric more often than the verbal metaphors because the lack of copula can turn the focus on the comparison between the source and the target, instead of the target itself. The examples demonstrate that context plays a major role in this process by identifying the source and the ...

  9. Visual Metaphor

    A visual metaphor can be described as an image that is used to symbolize something else. The image used in the metaphor might symbolize another image, idea, concept, or feeling. What are...

  10. A Cultural Visual Metaphors

    A visual metaphor is a comparison of something that belongs to one category with another of a different category (Arnheim 125). It suggests a similarity between the two things. Visual metaphors vary from one cultural setting to another. For this reason the intended message may be lost if a metaphor from one culture is used in another one.

  11. What is a Visual Metaphor

    What is a Visual Metaphor — Definition & Examples in Art & Film By Kyle DeGuzman on June 6, 2021 Metaphor Mixed Metaphor Visual Metaphor Extended Metaphor Implied Metaphor Dead Metaphor Film is primarily a visual medium. Filmmakers have various tools to create meaning through visual elements, one of which is the visual metaphor.

  12. Interpreting Visual Metaphors: Asymmetry and Reversibility

    1962 essay, Black used an analogy of looking at the starry sky through a ... 1980, p. 5). A visual metaphor, thus, takes place when the source and the target (or one of them) of a metaphor are ...

  13. Visual metaphor

    A visual metaphor is a metaphor the medium of which is visual. Like in any other metaphor, one part of it, usually named "source", applies to another part, usually named "target", and reconstructs it. The point is that the metaphorical application or reconstruction in visual metaphor is made by means of visual tools, forms and compositions.

  14. PDF Visual Metaphor, Cultural Knowledge, and the New Rhetoric

    Visual metaphor is a term that designates how visual space is organized as a means of sharing cultural and social knowledge. The tradition investigated in this essay is non-Aristotelian, and it is based on non- Western epistemology that is embraced by oral cultures.

  15. The Visual Experience of Image Metaphor: Cognitive Insights into

    These findings indicate that readers may be particularly likely to understand image metaphor through visual imagery, especially when the terms of the metaphor correspond physically. This essay is drawn from a larger project on the "poetics of literary visualization"—a part-by-part investigation of the formal features of texts that elicit ...

  16. A Philosophy of Visual Metaphor in Contemporary Art

    A worthy contribution in the still-growing efforts to de-silo theory from practice in writing and teaching about contemporary art, Mark Staff Brandl's A Philosophy of Visual Metaphor in Contemporary Art is approachable and informal while being specific and sincere, and a tonal success for the way it loosens up and shakes out the rhetoric, jargon, and tropes common to so much scholarly ...

  17. Writing Visual Culture: Transmission and Intertextual Metaphors of

    In this essay, I explore the writing of visual culture as an important site of rep resentation that impacts students' agency in the art classroom. As Terry Eagleton (1983) stated, "[Ljanguage is something I am made out of, rather than merely a con venient tool I use" (p. 130). If one recog nizes that language is not simply a neutral

  18. An Introduction to Visual Metaphors

    Visual metaphors are highly structured images that stimulate viewers to understand one concept in terms of another concept. They are a potent weapon in the communication professional's arsenal. If you'd like a compact five-minute overview of visual metaphors, please check out my Ignite presentation below:

  19. Stuart Franklin: Landscape as Metaphor • Magnum Photos

    The coherent aim, as a collection of photographs, is to stand as a late flowering of a hundred-year-old experiment in photography-based visual metaphor. This is a personal and intuitive response to the sculpted or uncultivated landscape: to the arched magic of trees; to hewn rock and dressed stone; to fossils deep and shallow cuts on sand, ice ...

  20. Top-Quality Guide On Visual Metaphors 2022

    Visual metaphors are visual tropes. They are highly structured images that stimulate viewers to understand one concept in terms of another idea. Visual metaphors perform better than verbal metaphors in advertising. The reason why this happens is very simple.

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    Spatial and stylistic visual metaphors are used in these narratives to depict specific psychological experiences in viscerally engaging ways. Drawing theoretical insights from Elisabeth El Refaie, George Lakoff, and Mark Johnson, this essay explores the middle ground between triumphalist and fatalist narratives through grey metaphors that ...

  22. Renewing Empathy With Imagery and Metaphor

    Metaphor, on one hand, can bring in something familiar in order to understand a complex idea. Here, the opposite is true—the metaphor moves me away from the familiar to a place where nothing impedes my gut reaction. It opens a much wider door to empathy and human connection. Metaphor also has the potential to stigmatize illness and the sufferer.

  23. Visual Metaphor in Advertising: 20 Examples from Top Brands

    9. McDonald's. Here's another example of a visual metaphor in advertising that banks on simplicity. McDonald's is known for its innovative advertising designs, and this one is no exception. To show consumers that the fast-food giant is open 24/7, they showcase nocturnal animals with their eyes shining brightly.