Beauty and Joy in Metaphorical Advertising: the Poetic Dimension

Barbara B. Stern, Rutgers University
[ to cite ]:
Barbara B. Stern (1990) ,"Beauty and Joy in Metaphorical Advertising: the Poetic Dimension", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, eds. Marvin E. Goldberg, Gerald Gorn, and Richard W. Pollay, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 71-77.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, 1990      Pages 71-77


Barbara B. Stern, Rutgers University

The author examines "art" in advertising by micro-level focus on the single advertisement to analyze metaphor in terms of Aristotle's Poetics. Aristotelian definition of literary metaphors and three classes -- single, extended, open-ended -- are discussed. Harmony and imitation as sources of pleasure in language are analyzed, and related to consumer research. Influence of harmony on enjoyment and memorability of metaphors and influence of representational style of metaphor on inference-conclusion drawing and consumer evaluation of "goodness/badness" discussed.

But the greatest thing by far is to have a command of metaphor. This alone cannot be imparted by another; it is the mark of genius, for to make good metaphors implies an eye for resemblances (Aristotle, Poetics, XXII.9)

Advertising has been called an "art" by practitioners (Ogilvy 1985), marketing researchers (Holbrook 1987; Pollay 1985), and social critics (Berman 1981; Schudson 1984; Wicke 1988). Their usual focus is on the macro-level cumulative effect of the numerous messages that daily bombard consumers. This paper takes a different view, and focuses on the micro-level analysis of a single advertisement. The goal is a new approach, beginning with the question, "Why is an advertisement categorized as art?" One clue is that an advertisement may entertain as well as inform and persuade. This suggests that it may be perceived as enjoyable as a result of dimensions shared with other aesthetically satisfying works, such as poems, plays, or movies. Central to the concept of advertising as entertainment -- something to be enjoyed by the perceive -- are literary elements as sources of beauty, joy, and pleasure. This paper thus turns to literary criticism -- the discipline specializing in ''defining, classifying, analyzing, interpreting, and evaluating works of literature" (Abrams 1988, p. 38) -- for a theoretical framework to analyze an advertisement.

One enjoyable element that advertising language shares with all other verbal art is the use of metaphor, a figure of speech (for bib., see Shibles 1971) analyzed by rhetorical classifiers (Connors 1984), philosophers (Black 1962; Ortony 1979; Ricoeur 1977; Searle 1979), and literary critics (Abrams 1953; Wellek and Warren 1973). Metaphor is the basis of figurative or "ornamental" language, fundamental not only to traditional literature, but also to other modes of discourse such as everyday speech, political propaganda, and religious sermons (Abrams 1988). Much research interest concentrates on the use of metaphor to persuade consumers, historically traceable to Aristotle's Rhetoric.

But advertising writers are like poets (Brooks 1947) as well as propagandists in the creation and use of metaphors. This creativity connects advertising to literature, and allows investigation of how an advertisement's text relates to Aristotelian literary theory. Thus, this paper draws on Aristotle's Poetics (Fergusson 1961) -- the earliest literary theory of metaphor -- to discuss the pleasure-value of language and the concept of an advertisement as consumer entertainment. The paper proceeds as follows:

1: Definition of metaphor: comparison, analogy, transference of attributes

2: Three classes of metaphor: single, extended, open-ended

3: Metaphoric pleasure: harmony and imitation

4: Aristolian theory and consumer research


Metaphors are one category of figurative language, or figures of speech. These are words or phrases used in a way that departs from the standard or literal meaning of the words (see Searle 1979) to achieve some special effect. Aristotle regarded metaphor as the basis of poetic language, and somewhat elliptically defined it as "the application of an alien name by analogy, that is, proportion" (Italics mine, Fergusson 1961, p. 99). The Aristotelian metaphor thus has three elements: comparison ("resemblances") by analogy to enable transference of qualities to one thing (subject of the metaphor) from another (object, also called "the metaphorical term"). Another set of terminology (Richards 1936) uses "tenor" = subject, "vehicle" = object, and "grounds" = properties transferred to the subject from the object.


The Aristotelian metaphor is an implied indirect comparison or similarity between a literal object and a metaphoric object, in which the reader has to supply the omitted comparative term (Brooks and Warren 1960). A frequently-used poetic example (see Barnet 1979; Brooks and Warren 1960), is Spenser's compliment from a man to his lady-love: "She is a rose." The analogy between a rose and a lady is based on transference of qualities such as beauty, softness, fragrance, and fragility (Barnet 1979). Literary critics say that it means that "the girl is fragrant; her skin is perhaps like a rose in texture and (in some measure) color; she will not keep her beauty long" (Barnet 1979, p. 181). The analogy allows the suggestions of "rose" to be transferred figuratively (rather than literally) to the lady.

In this sense, metaphor is an elliptical form of simile. A simile -- X is like Y -- is an overt direct comparison, in which two things are associated by means of "like" or "as." Spenser's line rewritten as a simile is, "She is like a rose." But the metaphor leaves out the comparative word, and simply says, "X is Y." Its implicitness leaves the reader to infer that "is" means "is like in some way" rather than literally "equals" or "is identical to." The reader is expected to supply the omitted comparative word and understand the phrase connotatively as an analogy. The implicitness of the comparison allows metaphor to assert an identification of the two terms (they are not merely LIKE each other; they ARE each other). The metaphor, in sum, acts as a kind of shorthand that condenses bits of information about its subject into a single comparison accepted by the reader as literary, not literal, truth.


The comparison of things that are literally unlike by finding analogical resemblances took firm root in Western literature as a result of the medieval lore of analogy in Dante's Divine Comedy and the voluminous body of literary criticism generated by it (Culler 1981; Spurgeon 1965). Aristotle defines comparison by analog as follows (Fergusson 1961, P. 99):

Analogy or proportion is when the second term is to the first as the fourth to the third. We may then use the fourth for the second, or the second for the fourth.

An analogy of proportion requires four terms, two of which have a common factor or similarity. In notational form, this reads: 1:2::3:4, or A:B::C:D, a juxtaposition in which terms 4 and 2 can replace each other. The comparison can be stated in words as follows: If A is to B as C is to D, then B and D can be interchanged, and A can be said to be like (similar to) C. Frye illustrates the analogy using the expression "the hero was a lion," in which courage is the common factor, and the analogy is, "the hero is to human courage as the lion is to animal" (1973, p. 124). Analogical metaphors seem to control the structure of many advertisements as well, and can be analyzed on the basis of literary criticism (see Stern 1988, 1989).

An advertising example is, "Among the riches of Beverly Hills, a little gem of a hotel The Beverly Pavilion Hotel." This is an elliptical metaphor, for the verb "is" is omitted, but implied by the comma, often used in formal written prose to indicate ellipsis (Watkins, Dillingham, and Martin 1974). In notational form, the metaphor is shown in Figure 1. The common factor is distinctiveness: just as a little gem stands out even among many jewels, the little hotel stands out even amidst the riches of Beverly Hills dwellings.


The point of analogy is the transference of attributes from the object of the comparison to the subject (Brooks and Warren 1960). The subject and object are sandwiched side by side for ease of comparison, and marketing metaphors, like poetic ones, encourage consumers to transfer characteristics of an object to the subject. In our example, the image of a small gem that stands out among an abundance of jewels is transferred to the notion of the Beverly Pavilion as the most distinctive small hotel in a geographic area remarkable for affluence. The advertisement's metaphor thus involves the application of an alien name [gem] to a hotel by transference [the quality of distinctiveness] by analogy [the resemblance between the gem's and the hotel's uniqueness].


The concept of attribute transference has been further refined by post-Aristotelian literary critics into three metaphorical classes based on number of resemblances (attributes) and degree of similarity (subject and object). The classes were characteristic of various kinds of poetry popular in earlier centuries, and enter modern advertising language with differences based on historical convention. The classes are differentiated on the basis of two questions: How many attributes are shared by the items compared? and How similar are the subject and object? The three classes are single (one resemblance, dissimilar s/o); extended (many resemblances, dissimilar s/o); and open-ended (indefinite number of resemblances, similar s/o).

Single Metaphor

The single metaphor compares a subject and object that are quite dissimilar for the sake of emphasizing one main shared quality (Korg 1962). Single metaphors present what Samuel Johnson called "a combination of dissimilar images, or discovery of occult resemblances in things apparently unlike" (Abrams 1988, p. 31). Their ancestry is traceable to the seventeenth-century metaphysical poets (especially John Donne) who used analogy to create startling comparisons in which "the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together" (Johnson in Abrams 1988, p. 31). Transference is restricted to one limited and unambiguous -- though frequently far-fetched -comparison that controls the text narrowly.

The metaphysical poets fell out of favor in the Romantic era, but were rediscovered by twentieth century-poets, who rely even more on "occult resemblances" than did their forebears. The presence of single metaphors in advertising suggests that commercial art freely adapts whatever literary techniques are in the current cultural mainstream. An advertising example is a classified ad ("Summer Entertaining" 1989, p. 94) for a telegram-delivery service: "STRIPPER-GRAMS .... The only gift that unwraps itself." The specialty telegrams delivered for "bachelor parties, showers, birthdays" are compared to strip-tease artists ("gorgeous girls...great guys") based on the single quality of undressing as a form of public entertainment -- a "gift" of oneself to an audience. Although a message on paper and a live stripper are apparently quite dissimilar (in action - verbal vs. physical; in medium -- static vs. dynamic; in nature -- abstract vs. concrete, and so forth) they are similar in one respect: each is a "gift that unwraps itself." Hence, their comparison is a single metaphor.


Extended Metaphor

A second category also derived from metaphysical poetry is the extended metaphor, in which a dissimilar subject and object share parallel points of resemblance. The burden is on the writer to ensure that everything he says is as true of the subject as of the object (see Ciardi and Williams 1975) and to create a coherent point-by-point analogy emphasizing the one area in which two different things are alike. Extended metaphors often use comparison for shock value in that they yoke dissimilar things together as the basis for ingenious and elaborate figures, sometimes judged artificial by critics who object to a poetic straining for likenesses where none appears to exist (see Ruthven 1969).

An advertising example is Chanel's tag-line, "We don't say LIFT-SERUM is a miracle. You may think otherwise." Here, the points of resemblance between the cream and the miracle of renewed youth deal with time, place, and circumstance: [what happens] -- "up to 45% reduction in the appearance of visible lines and wrinkles"; [when] -- "after just one month's regular use"; [where] -- on a womans' face. Just as a miracle achieves instant results by means of complex simultaneous changes (Cinderella turns from a scullery maid into an aristocratic lady dressed for a ball at the stroke of midnight), so too is this cream miraculous. The parallelism among a number of resemblances linking two unlike entities makes this an extended metaphor, as elaborate a figure as any found in poetry. Interestingly, the grammatical context places it within a negative statement of fact ("we don't say it is a miracle"). It is not clear whether this is done for the sake of literary ingenuity -- to present the metaphor in a novel setting -- or in order to avoid legal problems.

Open-Ended Metaphor

A third type of metaphorical transference is open-ended, the heritage of the Romantic nineteenth century poets who reacted against the forced and unusual juxtapositions created by their metaphysical forefathers (see Wimsatt 1972). An open-ended metaphor entails an indefinite number of shared resemblances between two things that are more similar than dissimilar. These allow the reader to figure out the transferable qualities, alluded to rather than stated, and in so doing generate a many-sided meaning in his/her mind (Korg 1962). They give the reader leeway to fill in numerous possible relationships between a subject and object seen as more alike than not, and to find clusters of resemblances on his/her own. The metaphors have "polysemous" meaning (see Frye 1973) and are richly ambiguous (Empson 1947) in that they permit multilayered, complex, and connotatively wide ranging interpretation.

Open-ended metaphors are now considered the most significant and common kind, thought to evoke a strong impression precisely because they do NOT force a comparison on the reader (Korg 1962). By leaving a reader free to put in his/her own ideas, they engage his/her participation in the creative process. An example of an open-ended metaphor is found in an ad for New York's Shinbashi restaurant: "Owner Fumiko Hosoda welcomes you...Dining at Shinbashi is spending an evening in Japan." The restaurant qualities transferred are never spelled out, but merely linked by association with "an evening in Japan." The ad requires the reader to fill in the outlines of "evening in Japan" with whatever positive images s/he selects, and transfer those attributes to dining at the restaurant. Indefiniteness is thought to stimulate a reader's imagination by encouraging him/her to supply the points of resemblances that coalesce into one personally rich meaning. A reader's imagination is said to add comparisons implied by the original one (Brooks and Warren 1960),-in a process itself metaphorically comparable to the widening circle of ripples (layers of meaning) that occur when a pebble is thrown into a pond.

Thus, three kinds of Aristotelian metaphor have been identified based on number of resemblances among attributes (single versus open ended/extended) and degree of similarity between subject and object (single/extended versus open ended).


Aristotle suggested that poetry -- the "language embellished" characteristic of choral odes in the Greek tragedies -- originated in human enjoyment of language "harmony" (pleasing sounds) and "imitation" (representation of reality). "Harmony" refers to enjoyment of words and word groups as a result of their sound, rhythm, and rhyme (Fergusson 1961). Literary critics study prosody, the discipline of versification, to analyze metre, rhyme, and stanzaic structure (see e.g. Fussell 1979; Wimsatt 1972) as elements governing a text's musicality. Metaphorical harmony (see Crane 1953; Wellek 1963) refers to the meter, sound patterns, and rhyme scheme found in even short phrases. One way that metaphors are thought to induce pleasure, then, is by the way they sound.


Harmonious language is found in an ad for Bombay Sapphire Gin -- "Bombay Sapphire. Pour something priceless." The brand name states the metaphoric terms: Bombay is compared to a sapphire, and the qualities of blueness, icy sparkle, and costliness are transferred from object to subject. She tag-line uses alliteration (underlined "p" and "s" sounds) and rhythm (iambic, accent on the first syllable in word group) (Figure 2). The extent to which harmony positively affects enjoyment has not yet been measured (see below), but critical comments about lack of harmony suggest that sounds are important. A slogan in a recent Aetna Life & Casualty ad -- "We give new meaning to the word diligent" -- was criticized on the grounds of poor rhythm. Garfield wrote, "If ever a slogan failed to roll off the tongue, this is it. Ditto for the commercials themselves, which are full of promise but oddly out of sync" (Garfield 1989, p. 38). This implies that Aristotle's theory of harmonious sound patterns as a source of pleasure may be relevant to advertising as well as to poetry.

Imitation or mimesis refers to pleasure derived from meaning rather than sound. It does not imply superficial copying, but rather, a poem's representation of life by re-creating some aspect of it in the new "medium" of words. All verbal art is in this sense mimetic, for it re-creates the "real" world of human experience in word-imitations (see Nuttall 1983; Alter 1984). An advertisement, too, represents a specific kind of human action (associated with use of a product or service) in words (and also in pictures, sounds, music, and movement, although non-verbal art lies beyond the scope of this paper).

Aristotle felt that humans derive pleasure from metaphoric representations because of what they learn: " learn gives the liveliest pleasure....Thus the reason why men enjoy seeing a likeness is that in contemplating it they find themselves learning or inferring" (Fergusson 1961, p. 55) something about their own lives and that of others. The reader is thought to experience "a leap of the imagination, a shock of surprise" (Brooks and Warren 1960, p. 89) in apprehending a comparison that encourages fresh views of a commonplace object, idea, or event. A metaphor reveals something beautiful and new even when the domain is painful or unpleasant (as in Greek tragedy), for people are said to delight in recognizing a thing "reproduced with minute fidelity'' (Fergusson 1981, p. 55). When audiences recognize the representation of an analogical transference, their satisfaction is said to be that of enhanced understanding: they now see the subject in a new light.

Aristotle analyzed enhanced understanding in terms of the sight/blindness metaphors dominant in Oedipus Rex. Modern advertising also finds a similar comparison useful, as evidenced in a Kodak ad for products targeted to health care professionals. X-ray films are called "Eyes for what a doctor cannot see," in an ad that is pan of the campaign's theme, 'The New Vision of Kodak." The comparison of x-ray film to human eyes demonstrates how technology imitates the human body: x-rays are to medical sight as eyes are to human sight. The metaphoric play on visibility/invisibility teaches the reader that the complex and mysterious entity of diagnostic apparatus can be understood in terms of the more familiar human body. Reader pleasure, in Aristotelian terms, is thought to stem from understanding what the new technology is about as a result of its representation in terms of something already known: the bodily eye.

Thus, poetry is said to have originated in man's enjoyment of harmony and imitation, and metaphoric language said to satisfy the "natural and universal" human desire to hear pleasurable sounds and understand oneself--and the world. Metaphors serve the purpose of stimulating enjoyment to the extent that they please the ear and present reality faithfully.


Since advertisements create and use metaphors in ways that are traceable to Aristotelian theory, some insights may also be found there to shed light on consumer responses. The relationship of metaphorical effects to consumer responses has not yet been clearly translated from humanistic criticism to the social sciences, nor has it been extensively considered in terms of what the consumer enjoys or finds entertaining. There are many opportunities for original consumer research on the relationship of metaphors to enjoyment of advertisements, recall of messages, inference-drawing, and global evaluation.

Harmony: Enjoyment and Recall

One virtually untouched area of study is the degree to which harmony affects an audience's enjoyment of an ad. Prosody has barely been tapped as a useful source of antecedent variables to answer the question, 'To what extent do sound and rhythmic effects influence consumer perceptions of metaphors as entertaining?" Many sound-based variables can be identified as small-unit variables (sound patterns or rhyme, for example) capable of inclusion in MacInnis and Price's processing model (1987). Other larger-unit ones (metrical or stanzaic form) also not well-explored probably should be tested to ascertain whether and how they elicit favorable/unfavorable consumer responses. The degree to which people are entertained by pleasing sounds in advertisements is not known. It is also not clear whether different sound patterns -- "beat" -- may be appropriate for different purposes (reminder ads versus new-product introductions, for example).

In addition to pleasure, harmony is also associated with recall, for mnemonics similar to those advertisers use have long been said to enhance memorability. Since Anglo-Saxon times (see Hulbert 1961; Wrenn 1966), alliteration and assonance have been used to impress verses on nonliterate mass audiences. One advertising study (Vanden Bergh, Adler, and Oliver 1987) suggests that the memorability of Coca Cola (alliterative "c" sounds, assonant "o" and "a" sounds, beginning and end rhyme) in part results from its sound-qualities. The extension of this research from brand names to metaphors seems necessary to determine whether sound effects do lead to greater recall, and if so, what the optimal combinations of sounds are. Additionally, the relationship between memorability and displeasure should also be investigated, for some rhythms are likely to be annoying because they are overly insistent or too regular.

Imitation: Inference-Conclusions and Evaluation

Another area of research where Aristotelian theory seems useful is inference and conclusion drawing. Literary critics say that metaphorical transference of attributes facilitates understanding in an unconscious process called by a variety of names: burst of insight (Brooks and Warren 1960) sudden perception (Ciardi and Williams 1975), vivid dramatic experience (Barnet 1979), and so forth. These descend from Aristotle's comment that humans experience a moment of truth when they perceive that one thing resembles another in a poetically created likeness. In advertisements, the transference seems designed to encourage readers to infer that the subject possesses the attributes of the object (for rev., see Sawyer 1988).

Social science research suggests that this transference may be almost automatic (Glucksberg, Gildea and Bookin 1982), but many questions remain about the process and end result. First, how does transference of attributes occur in advertising messages? It seems unwarranted to assume that people read ads the same way that they read literature, newspapers, or other media communications. Second, how does the transference mechanism work in single versus extended versus open-ended metaphors? There is little reason to think that the process is exactly the same, for single metaphors seem more conclusive, and may be less likely to stimulate inferences, while open-endeds seem more inconclusive and place the burden of interpretation on the reader. Extended metaphors present a somewhat different mental task, in that the reader has to work out a point-by-point comparison to understand transference of an attribute bundle from object to subject. Inference research may benefit from awareness of different kinds of metaphors analyzed by literary critics, for the process of drawing conclusions may be related not only to how much the text tells a reader, but also to how it does the "telling." Literary critics hive also expended a good deal of effort in evaluating metaphors as "good" (original, creative, expressive of universal truth and psychological insight) or "bad" (trite, incomprehensible, mixed). Consumer researchers need to capture these judgments in measurable terms, and then begin to ascertain how an advertisement (as opposed to a poem or classical tragedy) is evaluated. The definition of "good/bad" in literary metaphors is itself controversial, and it is by no means clear that even if there were agreement, it would be transferable to commercial language. Aristotle himself put forth the notion of different criteria for language appropriate to different purposes (Fergusson 1961, p. 111):

There are also many modifications of language which we concede to the poets. Add to this that the standard of correctness is not the same in poetry and politics, any more than in poetry and any other art.

Some linguists and psycholinguists measure metaphorical goodness based on the similarity or dissimilarity of the attributes compared (see e.g. Chomsky 1964; Katz, Paivio, and Marschark 1985). Others, following Richards's (1936) theory of interaction, focus on the nature of subject and object, and suggest that the best metaphors employ close resemblances between attributes of a subject and object from different categories of being (Tourangeau and Sternberg 1981). Whether consumer evaluation Is based on number and similarity of attributes or relationships between the subject and object, or some combination of the two, is not yet clear. Literary criticism provides an enlarged framework for evaluation of metaphors on additional dimensions that may illuminate the nature of the transferral process. Some evaluative dimensions that seem related to advertising language are as follows (Brooks and Warren 1960, p. 272):

degree of explicitness

degree of ingenuity or creativeness

shock-value in the terms compared

degree of beauty: "unpoetic" (ugly or unpleasant comparison)

degree of comprehensibility

degree of economy (elaboration or condensation)

These add subtle considerations -- economy of expression, for example -- to evaluative criteria currently studied, and may lead to clearer understanding of what is meant by a "good" advertising metaphor.

Questions for consumer research concern how consumers evaluate advertising metaphors in terms of a "good/bad" rating. Do they evaluate metaphors based on the number and similarity of attributes they can transfer from object to subject? That is, do they judge by means of a quantifiable dimension of attribute transference? Or does something else occur, in which consumers experience both attribute transfer and the joyous feelings generated by the process (an "imaginative leap")? This comes closest to what literary critics say occurs when people read (or see) great imaginative works, but it is not clear that a "leap" or "burst of insight" can be empirically demonstrated. Nor is it clear that if it does exist (and this author thinks it does) whether and to what extent it applies to an advertisement. Little is known about perceptions of the language of commerce as entertaining or artistic in its own right. What consumers of novels or movies might consider "good" metaphors may not be the same as what consumers of advertisements think are "good," for the context may interact with the content in ways not yet understood.

Thus, additional research is necessary to understand how consumers enjoy, remember, draw inferences from, and evaluate advertising metaphors. Aristotelian theory suggests some directions this research can take. The areas of sound and meter in relation to enjoyment and memory, and analogy and transference in relation to inference-conclusion drawing and evaluation have begun to be explored. The view of advertisements as artistic creations opens up research possibilities by offering humanities theory as a source of insights for social science applications. Beauty as a quality conventionally thought to be inherent in poetic metaphors, and joy as a response may not be far removed from qualities inherent in some advertisements and consumer responses to them. It is important to keep in mind that an advertisement, like a literary work, can be viewed as a single piece of data (see Frye 1973), and examined to ascertain the nature, structure, and function of its metaphor(s). Sensitivity to within-ad elements may lead to increased understanding of the complex gestalt of an advertisement, similar to what Langer calls the "import" of poetry, (1951, p. 147):

Though the material... is verbal,its import is not the literal assertion made in the words, but the way the assertion is made, and this involves the sound, the tempo, the aura of associations of the words, the wealth or poverty of transient imagery that contains them, the sudden arrest of fantasy by pure fact, or of familiar fact by sudden fantasy, the suspense of literal meaning by a sustained ambiguity resolved in a long-awaited keywork, and the unifying all-embracing artifice of rhythm.


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