Research studies

The Influence of Visual Metaphor Types on comprehension and Attitude toward the Advertisement


Prepared by the researcher –   Reham El-Sayed Seddeek – Assistant lecturer, Department of English Language and Literature, Faculty of Arts, Fayoum University

Democratic Arab Center

Journal of cultural linguistic and artistic studies : Sixteenth Issue – December 2020

A Periodical International Journal published by the “Democratic Arab Center” Germany – Berlin

Nationales ISSN-Zentrum für Deutschland
 ISSN  2625-8943

Journal of cultural linguistic and artistic studies

 :To download the pdf version of the research papers, please visit the following link


The visual devices in advertising are considered to be an essential, interrelated, meaningful, and culturally embodied characteristic of contemporary advertising. A visual metaphor is used frequently in advertisements by depicting one domain of experience (target domain) in terms of another domain of experience (source domain). With regards to academic research, the emphasis was laid on initially verbal metaphor. The current research sets out to measure the impact of two different metaphor types namely; verbo-pictorial metaphor and replacement metaphor within an advertising context on consumer response. A group of 80 professors from three Egyptian universities participated in this experiment. Their liking attitude and comprehension to pictorially metaphorical advertisements based on Phillips and McQuarrie’s (2004) typology and Forceville’s (1996) typology were measured to find a difference. The Results related to the objective metaphor comprehension indicate the importance of the functional characteristics as a key element that participants focus on when solving the visual metaphors. Results from this experiment showed that replacement metaphor had the most positive effect on comprehension of the ad.

1.0 Introduction

         As the age of information and electronic media is upon us, we are surrounded with advertisements all the time and everywhere. In simple terms, various types of advertising become a part of our everyday life and so language scholars have become interested in investigating the language of advertisement from different perspectives. In the fields of marketing and advertising, language has an extraordinary power to shape and construct our perception and attitude towards a specific product. Goddard (2002) suggested that “although advertisements are ephemeral in that each one is short-lived; their effects are longstanding and cumulative” (p.3). In order to execute such effect, the language of advertising has to be persuasive and catchy. In the realm of advertising, variety of techniques are used to get our attention or to motivate the consumer to the act of buying the product.

         One of the most powerful instruments that advertising agencies has is not only verbal text, but also image. The modern trend of advertising eliminates verbal parts and increases a shift towards pictorial elements. Often the only textual part of the advertisement is the product name or the slogan. Research in the field of visual rhetoric in advertising suggests that the emphasis on pictorial elements over words has steadily increased throughout the last century (Phillips and McQuarrie, 2004). The visual devices in advertising are considered to be an essential, interrelated, meaningful, and culturally embodied characteristic of contemporary advertising (McQuarrie and Mick, 1999, p.51). Nowadays, there have been changes in the design of posters and billboards since they tend to be larger in size and their colors become brighter; however, at the same time, the decrease of the amount of words introducing a subject of advertisement is evident (Hermeren, 1999, p. 71).

1.1 Significance of the Research

         Regarding its substance as an artful deviation from familiar expectation, consumers’ reactions to ads that contain various types of pictorial metaphor is worth investigated. Although there is abundant research on pictorial metaphors, limited empirical research has been done to determine how consumers interpret and comprehend them. This research proposes to verify, through experimentation, the effect of different types of visual metaphor on (a) comprehension and (b) attitude toward the advertisement. The study will set out to assess not only the direct effect of visual metaphor, but also the moderating role of comprehension in altering consumer attitude toward the advertisement. Moreover, the study highlights how powerful the visual component is in advertising. Although there is abundance of literature on pictorial metaphor in advertisement, very little is known about how various types of visual metaphor elicit response from consumer. Depending upon Forceville’s typology (1996), this research attempts to gain a better understanding of the main visual techniques that advertisers use to attract attention of their clients and make them choose their products or services by affecting their emotions.

The current study has the following hypotheses:

H1: The level of comprehension will increase gradually starting from replacement, moving through verbo-pictorial metaphor.

H2: Comprehension will mediate the effect of visual metaphor on

  1. Attitude toward the ad

H3: Attitude toward the ad will increase gradually starting from verbo-pictorial moving through replacement metaphor.

2.1 Theoretical Framework

To achieve the aim of this study the researcher applies Forceville’s typology (1996) which distinguished two types of visual metaphors:

1) Replacement: this type presents only one image, either the primary subject or the secondary subject, while the intended picture is absent.

2) Verbo-pictorial: depends on a comparison between two objects where one of the terms is rendered visually and the other is depicted verbally.

2.1.2 Comprehension

       The most brilliant and original advertising ideas will be wasted if they are not comprehended by the prospective customers. Fundamentally, visual metaphors represent artful deviations from expectations (McQuarrie and Mick, 1996) and rely on cross domain comparisons. What makes the interpretation of metaphorical meanings in product advertising more complex is the incongruity in visual metaphors. As a type of rhetorical figure, visual metaphors are likely to increase audiences’ need for cognitive effort to fill in the gaps. To comprehend an advertising metaphor, the consumer need to recognize, understand and are capable of cracking a puzzle and drive inferences from visual metaphors in advertising. However viewers’ comprehension of the ad is a central phase of consumer response, prior researches on metaphor comprehension are scattered (Ma, 2008; McQuarrie and Mick, 1999; Morgan and Reichert, 1999; Philips, 1997; van Mulken, Pair, and Forceville, 2010).

         Since “consumers must interpret and transfer relevant properties from one image to another while ignoring irrelevant similarities” (Phillips, 2000, p.78). Scholars and practitioners in consumer researches noted that metaphors in ads are not always comprehended as their creators intended (Phillips, 1997). Accordingly, consumers infer more than one meaning when encountering ads containing visual metaphors. In her study, she found that consumers interpreted an ad’s message by deciding among the various strong and weak implicatures from images in the ads (Phillips, 1997). Strong implicatures refer to the intended meaning of the ad. When the consumer lost the advertiser’s main meaning for the ad, he creates weak implicatures. Such weak implicatures are based on consumer’s idiosyncratic readings of the visual metaphor (Phillip, 1997).

         Mick’s (1992) widely cited article distinguishes between subjective and objective comprehension. According to him, subjective comprehension refers to “the generation of meanings by a particular individual through the activation of mental concepts related to the message and the processing context” (Mick, 1992, p.412). In the context of this research, the subjective orientation toward message comprehension refers to the consumers’ personal perception regarding the extent they believe they have understood the ad or they did not grasp the meaning.  On the other hand, objective comprehension is defined as “the grasping or extracting of pre-specifiable meanings from the message” (Mick, 1992, p. 411). Under this objective orientation, the message comprehension is authentic to the intention of the advertiser and depending necessarily upon message-based meanings.

        With reference to comprehension of visual metaphoric ads, van Mulken, le Pair and Forceville (2010) compared the effect of replacement metaphor to fusion metaphor and juxtaposition metaphor. In line with other research on visual metaphor, the results of the study proved that replacement metaphor was more complex to comprehend than the other two types. Van Mulken, Hooft and Nederstigt (2014)’s findings resonated somewhat with van Mulken, le Pair and Forceville’s (2010) study. Van Mulken, Hooft and Nederstigt (2014) try to establish the tipping point in the curvilinear relation between the visual complexity of different types of metaphors and the appreciation of advertisements. In line with earlier research, their findings state that fusions were less well comprehended than juxtapositions.

2.1.3 Attitude towards the Ad

         Visual metaphors are ambiguous puzzles since they urge the viewer to exert mental effort to comprehend how one thing resembles or is linked to another (Van Mulken, Hooft and Nederstigt, 2014). The “artful deviation” in metaphors requires more cognitive effort from the consumer which in turn helps increasing message elaboration (McQuarrie & Mick, 1996). Consumers’ attitude toward the ad can be described as “a predisposition to respond in a favorable or unfavorable manner to a particular advertising stimulus during a particular exposure occasion” (Lutz, 1985, p.46).

  1. Method

3.1 Measures

       A set of items was used to measure the response of the participants after they had seen a stimulus.

3.1.1 Independent Variables

         The independent variables are represented in the two types of visual metaphor, which are: replacement metaphor and verbo-pictorial metaphor.

3.1.2 Mediating Variables

Mediating Variables are the mechanisms through the researcher can understand how the independent variable is affecting the dependent variable and what is governing that relationship. In the current study, the mediating variables are

  • Ad comprehension

3.1.3 Dependent Variables

         Attitude toward the ad can be described as “a predisposition to respond in a favorable or unfavorable manner to a particular advertising stimulus during a particular exposure occasion” (Lutz, 1985, p.46).

3.1.4 Participants

        After the ad materials were decided, a survey measuring the ad likeability and understandability to pictorial metaphor in advertising was ready to be conducted. The test consisted of an online questionnaire, created in Google forum, displaying the selected (6) advertisements. Sample of (80) participants from English department staff in different universities took part in the survey.

3.1.5 Questionnaire Design

        Within-subject experimental design was used in this study. Each participant is exposed and responds to each question of the two types of visual metaphor. This experimental design is selected because it is appropriate with the goal of the research.

  1. Qualitative Analysis

4.1 Analysis of Variance

        In order to analyze the effect of verbal and pictorial metaphors within advertisements on the participants’ comprehension and attitude toward the ad, the participants’ answers must be evaluated at first. This evaluation is conducted by using the statistical program SPSS. The experiment was implemented with the univariate analysis of variance (ANOVA) to examine the effect of different types of pictorial metaphors on the attitude toward the ad and comprehension of the ad message.

Table1. Mean and Standard Deviations Associated with Dependent Variables (N=90).          

Dependent Variables Verbo-pictorial
  Mean Std. Deviation Mean Std. Deviation  
Subjective Comprehension 2.6056 0.62032


2.7222 0.52037  
Objective Comprehension 2.4111 0.41447 2.1278 0.53238  
Attitude toward the ad. 3.4444            1.39376 3.9074 1.02043  



Figure 1:  ANOVAs analysis of objective comprehension.

        Figure2:  ANOVAs analysis of objective comprehension.

         A repeated measure factorial ANOVA was performed on the calculated differences between the two appearances of visual metaphor in order to test their effect on ad subjective comprehension. The hypotheses claimed that ad subjective comprehension will increase gradually starting from replacement, moving through verbo-pictorial structures. In light of the above table of Mean and Standard Deviations, results from ANOVAs (analysis of variance) indeed showed that there was a significant difference between verbo-pictorial (M= 2.60, SD =0.62) and replacement (M=2.72, SD =0.52), p < .05. This means that advertisements employed verbo-pictorial metaphor (M= 2.60, SD =0.62) was comprehended less thanadvertisements with replacement metaphor (M=2.72, SD =0.52), p < .05. Put in another way, visual metaphor ads with replacement structure were comprehended better than ads with verbo-pictorial structure. This is contrary to our prediction in hypothesis (1).

Figure 17: ANOVAs analysis of attitude toward the ad.

         Based on visual structure, the previous table presents the results of univariate test for the ad likeability ratings. Note that the significance value applied in this test was .01 and it can be seen that all variables were below .01 significance values. Therefore, it can be said that visual metaphor type affects the consumer’s attitude toward the ad. The findings of the current study are consistent with these discussions in academia. With regard to attitude toward the ad results from ANOVA showed that there was a significant effect for the visual metaphor type on ad likeability. The noticeable difference was between the verbo-pictorial structure (M= 3.4, SD=1.3) and replacement (M=2.72, SD =0.52). Hence, hypothesis (3) was partially accepted. According to the results, replacement structure elicited greater ad liking compared to verbo-pictorial structures.

  1. Results

         The previous academic findings reveal that the ads that consist of more complex dimensions (replacement) cause more difficulty for the readers or viewers to comprehend. The current research results related to the objective metaphor comprehension are not connected to the findings, yet their explanation is very significant as ad comprehension is an important component of the overall ad effectiveness. “To be effective, a promotional metaphor must be minimally comprehended by its intended audience” (p. 636).  Participants indicated that the most comprehensible ads were the ones with replacement visual structures, they also found advertisements with verbo-pictorial metaphors least comprehensible. In the case of replacement structure depends mainly on absence thus the comparison between two objects where one of the terms is missing represents a challenge for the viewer comprehension skills.

         It is worth noting that the above-mentioned result provides evidence that participants focus on the common functional characteristics between the compared domains when solving the metaphorical adverts. For instance, with the objective metaphor comprehension questions, the participants were asked to choose one single characteristic that the two metaphorical objects (concepts) have in common. The analysis of their answers reveals that the viewers’ perception of contextual inappropriateness or conceptual similarity refers to the way the elements are similar in their function (and not necessary in their appearance or material).  In a nut shell, the present study attempted to prove that visual metaphor type effects consumer response which was accomplished.

          Verbo-pictorial type of metaphor ad was found to be less effective and this is contradicting with the current experiment predictions. Overall view, significant differences were found between verbo-pictorial metaphor and replacement metaphor. With the mediating and final response in mind, such type of multimodal visual metaphor scored the lowest among the other types of metaphor. Similarly, the mediation effect of subjective ad comprehension and objective ad comprehension tended to lean more towards a negative direction.

         Unlike the replacement metaphor, Forceville’s multimodal metaphor (verbo-pictorial) depends on a comparison between a visual (usually represents the product image) and a verbal object. The existence of verbal anchoring sometimes creates negative effects and elicits unintended consumer response to the ad. The verbal copy facilities comprehending the ad image and at the same time it decreases the amount of cognitive elaboration required to solve the metaphorical incongruity. Given that the viewer is supposed to enjoy handling the ad puzzle, the full explanation of the riddle negatively affects the pleasure evoked by the trope and may lead to negative attitude toward the ad. In harmony with that, many previous studies provide possible explanation for the negative result related to the verbo-pictorial metaphor and research proposes that implicit visual argument may provide a more persuasive effect than explicit visual argument which is anchored by verbal explanation. (Phillips 2000, Jeong 2008)


Forceville, C. (1996). Pictorial Metaphor in Advertising. London: Routledge.

 Goddard, A. (2002). The Language of Advertising: Written Texts (2nd ed.), Routledge: Intertext Series.

Hermerén, L. (1999), English for sale: A study of the language of advertising. Lund Studies in English: Lund University Press

Jeong, S. H. (2008). Visual Metaphor in Advertising: Is the Persuasive Effect Attributable to Visual Argumentation or Metaphorical Rhetoric?, Journal of Marketing Communications, 14(1), pp.59-73.

Lutz, R. J. (1985). Affective and cognitive antecedents of attitude toward the ad: A conceptual framework. Psychological processes and advertising effects, pp. 45-63.

Ma, L. (2008). Pictorial Metaphor in Advertising and Consumer Interpretation of its Cultural Meaning. China Media Research, 4(3), pp. 9-17.

McQuarrie, E. F., & Mick, D. G. (1996). Figures of Rhetoric in Advertising Language. Journal of Consumer Research, 22, pp.424-438.

McQuarrie, E. F., & Mick, D. G. (1999). Visual rhetoric in advertising: Text-interpretive, experimental, and reader-response analyses. Journal of Consumer Research, 26(1), pp.37-54.

Mick, D. G. (1992). Levels of subjective comprehension in advertising processing and their relations to ad perceptions, attitudes, and memory. Journal of Consumer Research, pp.411-424.

Morgan, S. E., & Reichert, T. (1999). The message is in the metaphor: Assessing the comprehension of metaphors in advertisements. Journal of Advertising, 28(4), pp.1–12.

Phillips, B. (1997). Thinking into it: Consumer Interpretation of Complex Advertising Images. Journal of Advertising, pp.77-87.

Phillips, B. J. & McQuarrie, E. (2004). Beyond visual metaphor: A new typology of visual rhetoric in advertising. Marketing Theory, 4, pp.113-136.

Phillips, B. J. (2000). The impact of verbal anchoring on consumer response to image ads. Journal of Advertising, 29 (1), pp.15–25

Van Mulken, M. & le Pair, R. (2012). Appreciation and interpretation of visual metaphors in advertising across three European countries. In MacArthur, Fiona, José Luis Oncins-Martínez, Manuel Sánchez-García and Ana María Piquer-Píriz (eds.), Metaphor in Use. Context, culture, and communication, pp. 177-193. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

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), pp.333-343

المركز الديمقراطى العربى

المركز الديمقراطي العربي مؤسسة مستقلة تعمل فى اطار البحث العلمى والتحليلى فى القضايا الاستراتيجية والسياسية والاقتصادية، ويهدف بشكل اساسى الى دراسة القضايا العربية وانماط التفاعل بين الدول العربية حكومات وشعوبا ومنظمات غير حكومية.

مقالات ذات صلة

اترك تعليقاً

لن يتم نشر عنوان بريدك الإلكتروني. الحقول الإلزامية مشار إليها بـ *

زر الذهاب إلى الأعلى