Language and thought are ridden with metaphors of various kinds, operating at various levels, writes Faris Yakob – but in advertising, a metaphor is often the tightest form of an insight.
This is not a column, really. Column acquired the meaning of a regular article in a publication from the columns of text in print, which was derived from the tendency we have in English to call vertically arranged things a column, pulled from its original architectural use. This text will resolve however your browser renders it. It is not an ‘op-ed' since it is not opposite the editorial page - even the NYTimes recently announced it’s retiring this anachronism they themselves coined in 1970.
Language and thought are ridden with metaphors of various kinds, operating at various levels. Feeling ‘up’ or ‘down’ speaks to the hardwired encoding of spatial metaphors in how we express abstract things.
What is a metaphor? (I don’t know - what is it for?) There are innumerable books written by people far more suitable than I dedicated to the topic but when has that ever stopped me?
When we are taught metaphor as opposed to simile at school we learn the difference - a metaphor doesn’t simply suggest a comparison, it creatively uses language that isn’t literally true to talk about something using something else. The two parts are known as the tenor and vehicle (delightfully these are of course metaphors themselves) and it is the interaction of the two that creates meaning. The tenor refers to the subject being described and the vehicle is the creative part.
When someone is called a ‘wet blanket’ for ruining some fun, the ‘wet blanket’ is the vehicle, carrying over ideas of unpleasant dampening and the putting-out-of-fire to the spoilsport. This is the metaphorical heart of metaphor - a transference, a carrying over.
When customers are considering a new purchase, as marketing professor Theodore Levitt pointed out in The Marketing Imagination (1983), it in some ways doesn’t matter if the product or service is tangible or intangible. “When prospective customers can’t taste, test, feel, smell, or watch the product in operation in advance, what they are asked to buy are, simply, promises of satisfaction.”
Brands sometimes use symbolic metaphors in their core identity, so insurance companies seem to have you “in safe hands”, or under an umbrella, or available easily by a direct line on a red telephone. Or they show up as a gecko with an English accent because no one knows that Geico stands for ‘Government Employees Insurance Company’, it’s easily misread as gecko, and Americans trust British accents, which stand out amongst other American advertising.
(Did you know geckos are named after the sound they make?)
Where was I? Still with me? Metaphors, ha!
Advertising makes explicit promises, creatively, but is also required to be “truthful, not misleading, and, when appropriate, backed by scientific evidence” as is demanded by the FTC (USA), or “legal, decent, honest and truthful”, by the ASA (UK). We seek to portray the product in compelling, distinctive, memorable, emotive, famous advertising, telling grand brand narratives, building brand worlds of distinctive assets, elevating features into benefits into higher-order propositions and cultural strategies. This leads brands and agencies to metaphor, where they can wrap products in fantastical stories that elevate everyday products above the quotidian.
Big metaphors in advertising can write checks the product doesn’t need to cash, protecting brands with the defense of ‘puffery’ - exaggeration for commercial purposes that “no reasonable person would take as factual”. As Levitt wrote: “Of some products less is expected than what is explicitly or symbolically promised. The right kind of eye shadow properly applied may promise to transform you into an irresistible tigress in the night. But not even the most eager buyer literally believes the metaphor. Still, the metaphor makes the sale.” (Levitt, 1983)
Filtered through the creative template of extreme consequences, we can see how a vast amount of advertising has historically used metaphors to dramatize the effect of products. Mr Clean isn’t literally a man who has come to help you, Lynx doesn’t literally create a powerful attractive effect. Metaphors are the lifeblood of the award-winning print and outdoor advertising of our time, the medium lends itself to clever juxtapositions and striking images. Over the last few years I’ve noticed a shift in how advertising seems to use these grand metaphors, from transformation towards something approaching empathy.
Perhaps the Man Your Man Could Smell Like and his contemporary the Most Interesting Man in the World saw the transformation metaphor peaking while being subverted into satire. Of course you won’t become the most interesting man in the world, nor will your husband become Isiah Mustafa, but he could smell like him.
Thinking beyond the funnel
For more on new thinking on path to purchase, read The Hankins Hexagon next
A metaphor to understand the customer journey is valuable, but the concept of a linear purchase funnel is outdated and inappropriate. The Hankins Hexagon presents a much needed and flexible model to analyse and optimise the path to purchase.
The tightest form of an insight is often a metaphor - this is (now, or the new) that. Any classic reframing is a metaphor. Polaroid isn’t a camera, it’s a social lubricant. The AA is the fourth emergency service. You aren’t yourself when you’re hungry, literally, metaphorically. Audi showed us that other drivers can be clowns. Dolmio dramatized the dinner table as a battlefield.
Libresse’s Womb Stories used visual metaphor and eclectic animation to express the complex, largely hidden, relationship women have with their cyclical reproductive system (netting itself a Cannes Grand Prix in Craft). The advertising landed on “anthropomorphising the uterus and the ‘womb dwellers’ that live inside it. The womb emerged as a kind of second seat of power that controls women’s bodies. It can be awesome, or the control centre can say ‘I’m going to totally screw up your life today’…”, according to ECD Nadja Lossgott, “...the complexities in the life of most women are complicated and messy, and that should be acknowledged.” From promises of transformation to expressions of empathy and insight, we get you, we understand how you feel.
Of course, metaphors abound throughout the industry far beyond the advertising itself. As Mike Follett of Lumen Research has noted, there are four dominant metaphors we use to describe marketing to our clients and amongst ourselves: the journey, the war, the relationship and the exchange.
All can be useful as long as we remember that they are metaphors, not reality. Sometimes metaphors highlight important elements by analogy - the customer journey metaphor helps us think about drivers and barriers to purchase but it isn’t really a journey and it certainly isn’t a funnel.
Agencies and consultants continue to use and invent different models, from McKinsey’s infinite loop, to Google’s Messy Middle, to the customer journey map itself, originally developed by IDEO. All the way to the recent and admittedly tongue-in-cheek Hankins Hexagon, which looks to express the inherent nonlinearity of purchase decisions. Why? Why do we spend time trying to capture extremely complex systems of phenomena in simple diagrams that suggest we have a deep and unique grasp on modern marketing and consumers? Because the metaphor makes the sale.