Jeannette Littlemore and Paula Perez-Sobrino – EMMA

Exploring Multimodal Metaphor and Metonymy in Advertising (EMMA)

Jeannette Littlemore and Paula Perez-Sobrinoemma-header1
Department of English Language and
Applied Linguistics
University of Birmingham

In a globalized market place there is an increasing need for European companies and non-government organisations to develop sophisticated advertising strategies in order to increase their market share and compete successfully. One of these strategies is the use of metaphor, metonymy, and combinations thereof. The EMMA Project explores the effects of such figurative language on the interpretation of advertisements in both sectors.

Metaphor and metonymy are used in advertising
To be effective, advertisements need to capture attention, be emotionally engaging and persuasive. The use of metaphor and metonymy is believed to help accomplishing these aims. What are the advantages of using these stylistic devices in advertisements?

Metaphor is a highly noticeable, persuasive and powerful form of communication for a number of reasons. First, it allows indirect expression and provokes mental images, which can be used to package and convey a large amount of information in an efficient manner.

Further, as a natural component of thought, metaphor is evident beyond language. Intangible entities are often described metaphorically. For example, positive experiences are metaphorically ‘up’, and negative experiences are metaphorically ‘down’; emotional closeness can be construed as ‘warmth’ and emotional distance as ‘coldness’. Metaphor is thus ‘embodied’ and provides direct access to sensory-motor experiences (Johnson, 1987). In other words, humans experience a ‘gut’ reaction to metaphor, which is not experienced with more literal forms of communication.

Due to its embodied nature, metaphor has been shown to be more likely to provoke an emotional response than literal forms of expression (Citron & Goldberg, forthcoming) and this is may help the recipient to develop a personal relationship with an advertisement (Chang & Yen, 2013). Advertisements can contain a single metaphor in written or graphical format, or both, a combination is described as ‘multimodal metaphor’ (Forceville, 2009, p. 24).

Apart from metaphor, advertisements may also contain metonymy. Whereas metaphor usually involves a comparison between unrelated entities (or entities that are construed as being unrelated in a particular context), metonymy is a cognitive and linguistic process whereby one term is used to refer to another related phenomenon. For example, the word ‘Hollywood’ can be used to refer to mainstream US films (see Littlemore, 2015).

Other advertisements contain an interaction of metaphor and metonymy (Urios-Aparisi, 2009; Hidalgo & Kraljevic, 2011). Combinations may include, but are not limited to, multimodal metonymy, multimodal multiple-source in target metonymy, metonymic complex, multimodal metaphor, multimodal metaphtonymy, and multimodal metaphoric amalgam (Perez-Sobrino, 2016). As the combination of metaphor and metonymy increases in complexity, persuasive power of the advertisement is expected to increase.

But what do we know about their usage?
Given the abundance of metaphor and metonymy in advertisements, it may come as a surprise that little is known about several important aspects of their use. This goes, to give an example, for the depth to which audiences process metaphor and metonymy when they appear in multimodal format in advertisements. It also goes for the question of how long it takes them to do so. Since advertisements often appear in locations where short viewing periods are natural, e.g., driving past billboards or browsing webpages with banner adverts, knowledge of the speed of processing is of great importance.

Moreover, it is not known whether this multimodal figurative information evokes positive or negative attitudes towards products, as some viewers may find overt visual and verbal metaphors less appealing (Chang & Yen, 2013). Similarly, the extent to which multimodal advertisements evoke emotion is yet to be investigated. Prior work has suggested that metaphor may trigger a significant affective response to advertising (Phillips & McQuarrie, 2009), but the direction, valence and type of emotion is yet to be fully explored in multimodal messages, e.g., whether a complex combination of metaphor and metonymy triggers a stronger emotional response than a single metaphor would, and which combination results in a greater appreciation of the advertisement by the viewer.

In the development of advertisements it is necessary to consider an international audience, particularly when they are produced for online engagement. Metaphor in one language can result in difficulties for those whose native language differs (Littlemore & Low, 2006). However, the degree to which this occurs in imagery and video advertisements is not yet established. There is likely to be a degree of cross-cultural variation in the amount of time required to understand the multimodal metaphors and metonymies, the ways in which they are understood, and their appeal. Moreover, although studies suggest differences between Western and Chinese participants in terms of the ways in which they respond to emotions as expressed through metaphor (Jolley et al., 1998), this line of investigation has never been extended to the field of advertising.

Our research
In a pilot study conducted last year at the University of Birmingham (Littlemore & Perez-Sobrino, forthcoming), it was found that the degree of conceptual complexity does not affect the speed of comprehension in a significant way. However, there was strong correlation between figurative complexity and the perceived appeal of the product and the complexity of the consumer’s understanding of the advertisement.

In the Marie Curie project ‘Exploring Multimodal Metaphor in Advertising’ (EMMA), we are currently conducting empirical investigations into the roles played by emotion and linguistic / cultural background in facilitating these operations. We have expanded the scope of the study in terms of (1) the number of advertisements used as stimuli, (2) the languages in which the study is conducted (English, Spanish and Chinese), (3) number of participants, (4) consideration of gender, and (5) consideration of other variables such as colour, music, design and orientation.

We aim to establish the ways in which the extent, nature and complexity of multimodal metaphor and metonymy in advertisements affect the speed of comprehension, the depth of understanding, and the appeal of the advertisements. We also aim to assess the role played by different emotions, their intensity and onset in the understanding and appreciation of multimodal metaphor and metonymy in static and dynamic advertisements. Another aim is to answer the question how the above variables vary according to the linguistic and cultural background of the audience. Finally, we aim to identify the challenges that multi-modal figurative communication presents in cross-cultural communication.

By disseminating our findings regarding these issues in both academia and the advertising industry, the project will raise the awareness of advertisers to the workings of conceptual tools. This should lead to a strategic deployment of multimodal figurative language in line with ethical selling plans.

Chang, C., & Yen, C. (2013). Missing ingredients in metaphor advertising: The right formula of metaphor type, product type, and need for cognition. Journal of advertising, 42(1), 80-94.

Citron, F., & Goldberg, A. (forthcoming). Metaphorical sentences are more emotionally engaging than their literal counterparts. To appear in Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

Forceville, Ch. (2009). Non-verbal and multimodal metaphor in a cognitivist framework: Agendas for research. In Ch. Forceville & E. Urios-Aparisi (Eds.), Multimodal metaphor (pp. 19-42). Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Hidalgo, L., & B. Kraljevic (2011). Multimodal metonymy and metaphor as complex discourse resources for creativity in ICT advertising discourse. In F. Gonzálvez García, S. Peña & L. Pérez-Hernández (Eds.), Metaphor and metonymy revisited beyond the contemporary theory of metaphor (pp. 153-178). Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Johnson, M. (1987). The body in the mind: The bodily basis of meaning, imagination, and reason. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jolley, R. P., Zhi, Z., & Thomas, G. (1998). The development of understanding moods metaphorically expressed in pictures: A cross-cultural comparison. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 29(2), 358-376.

Kaplan, A. M., & Haenlein, M. (2011). Two hearts in three-quarter time: How to waltz the social media / viral marketing dance. Business Horizons, 54, 253-263.

Littlemore, J., & Low, G. (2006). Figurative thinking and foreign language learning. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

Littlemore, J., & Perez-Sobrino, P. (forthcoming). Eyelashes, speedometers or breasts? An experimental cross-cultural approach to multimodal metaphor and metonymy in advertising. In A. Baicchi & A. Bagasheva (Eds.), Figurative language we live by: The cognitive underpinnings and mechanisms of figurativity in language. Rome: Carocci Editore.

Perez-Sobrino, P. (2016). Multimodal metaphor and metonymy in advertising: A corpus-based account. Metaphor and Symbol, 31(2), 1-18.

Phillips, B., & McQuarrie, E. (2009). Impact of advertising metaphor on consumer belief: Delineating the contribution of comparison versus deviation factors. Journal of Advertising, 38(1), 49-62.

Stipeck, D. (1998). Differences between Americans and Chinese in the circumstances evoking pride, shame, and guilt. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 29(5), 616-629.

Urios-Aparisi, E. (2009). Interaction of multimodal metaphor and metonymy in TV commercials: Four case studies. In Ch. Forceville & E. Urios-Aparisi (Eds.), Multimodal metaphor (pp. 95-118). Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter.