Metaphor in Promotional Communication: a Review of Research on Metaphor Comprehension and Quality

James Ward, Arizona State University
William Gaidis, Marquette University
ABSTRACT - Metaphorical comparisons are frequently used in advertising to generate beliefs or to enhance the image of a product or service. Yet, very little research has appeared in the marketing literature which has discussed the nature of metaphors, their cognitive processing, or their effects on inference and evaluation. Researchers have provided virtually no guidelines for the creation of more effective promotional metaphors. This paper discusses various models of metaphor comprehension and quality, and suggests guidelines for both marketing practice and future research.
[ to cite ]:
James Ward and William Gaidis (1990) ,"Metaphor in Promotional Communication: a Review of Research on Metaphor Comprehension and Quality", 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: 636-642.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, 1990      Pages 636-642


James Ward, Arizona State University

William Gaidis, Marquette University


Metaphorical comparisons are frequently used in advertising to generate beliefs or to enhance the image of a product or service. Yet, very little research has appeared in the marketing literature which has discussed the nature of metaphors, their cognitive processing, or their effects on inference and evaluation. Researchers have provided virtually no guidelines for the creation of more effective promotional metaphors. This paper discusses various models of metaphor comprehension and quality, and suggests guidelines for both marketing practice and future research.


Metaphors abound in everyday conversation, in literature, and in advertising and other promotional efforts. A metaphor is usually described as an explicit or implicit statement that one concept is another concept. Marketers use metaphors in slogans ("Budweiser: The King of Beers," "Today's Chevrolet: The Heartbeat of America," "Nissan Trucks: The Hard Bodies," "Samsonite: The Survivor"), names ("Mustang" for a car, "Opium" for a perfume," "Trojans" for prophylactics), and other types of promotional devices. Marketers also employ metaphors to explain products and services to consumers by translating technical concepts into different and more understandable terms.

Despite marketers' frequent use of metaphors, the consumer behavior literature has had little to say about such issues as how consumers comprehend metaphors or how to create a metaphor that is apt, comprehensible, memorable, and encourages desired inferences and favorable affect about its subject (for exceptions to this neglect, see Kehert-Ward (1986) and the special session on metaphor noted in this volume of the Association for Consumer Research Proceedings).

This lack of recognition is unfortunate for several reasons. First, the study of metaphor has long been of interest to other disciplines. These include philosophy (for a review of historical and recent perspectives see Johnson 1981), psychology (for reviews see Billow 1977, Ortony 1979), linguistics (e.g., see Lakoff and Johnson 1980), literary criticism (e.g., see Johnson 1981, and Sacks 1978), and the aesthetic study of the visual arts (Arnheim 1969, 1974; Gombrich 1963, 1972a, 1972b). In the philosophy of science literature Black (1962), Kuhn (1979), Ward and Ruekert (1984), Arndt (1985), and Mick (1986) among others have suggested that metaphors can be powerful tools for the development of scientific theory (e.g., the cybernetic metaphor for cognitive activity).

Second, despite this long history of scholarship, theoretical issues about metaphor are far from being resolved. In fact, interest in the study of metaphor has increased in other disciplines enough to prompt Johnson (1981) to comment that, "We are in the midst of metaphormania. Only three decades ago the situation was just the opposite: poets created metaphors, everybody used them, and philosophers (linguists, psychologists, etc.) ignored them" (p. ix).

Third, scholars of consumer behavior might make interesting contributions to this interdisciplinary discussion. The mass of people may be more likely to be exposed to new metaphors through promotions than through poetry. Thus, the character of promotional metaphors and their relation to mass culture deserve study. Furthermore, promotional metaphors are usually intended to be apt, comprehensible, memorable, and to influence consumer beliefs and affect. These qualities of metaphor are the subject of controversy in other disciplines and further theoretical and empirical work seems necessary to help resolve these controversies.

To illustrate how promotional metaphors could be useful vehicles for the study of these issues, consider how the issues of comprehension, persuasion, and aptness are relevant to understanding the effectiveness of the metaphorical slogan "Nissan Trucks: The Hardbodies." To be effective, a promotional metaphor must minimally be comprehended by its intended audience. In other words, the audience must be able to see how trucks might be meaningfully related to people who have fit, hard-muscled bodies. An effective promotional metaphor should also help persuade consumers that a product or service has desirable characteristics. The "hardbody" metaphor seems intended to encourage consumers to infer that Nissan trucks have the characteristics of a fit body including strength, endurance, vigor, longevity, freedom from ills, and good looks. Young adults, an important market segment for compact pick-up trucks, are both likely to understand the term "hardbody" and to value such characteristics in themselves and trucks. If consumers make favorable inferences, their attitude to the product should improve. Furthermore, a promotional metaphor that is perceived as "apt" (that is, good, clever, and insightful) may create a more favorable attitude toward the promotion itself (Aad) which might also favorably influence attitude toward the product.

As this example suggests, marketing scholars have the opportunity to make significant advances in the study of metaphor that are both theoretically interesting and practically useful. From a theoretical perspective, issues such as how metaphors are perceived, processed, and remembered have fascinated scholars for decades, and fit with marketing scholars developing interest in the study of symbol perception, processing, and meaning (e.g., Solomon 1983, Mick 1986, Sherry and Camargo 1987, Hirschman 1988). From an applied perspective, many promotional campaigns are based on a metaphor but metaphors vary widely in their success. People regard some metaphors as trite, inappropriate, or confusing, and others as apt, clever, illuminating, and memorable. The best promotional metaphors have become popular symbols of American culture, and have helped create legends around a few products. For example, the Ford Mustang's name suggests such associations as speed, freedom, independence, and even rebellion that probably helped increase the product's appeal to young people in the sixties (Iacocca 1984).

The purpose of this paper is to encourage students of consumer behavior to become more interested in the study of metaphor. All of the perspectives noted earlier cannot be adequately discussed in a short paper, so this review will focus on recent work in psychology which has attempted to explain how metaphors are comprehended and what makes one metaphor more apt, comprehensible, and memorable than another. Since the study of metaphor has become highly interdisciplinary, reference to work in philosophy and linguistics will also be made.


The question of what a metaphor is, and how a metaphor can be identified, is a complex issue. The simplest definition is that a metaphor is a statement that one concept is another. This is generally true, but is not sufficient to identify and distinguish metaphors from other statements. For example, by itself the statement that "Baking Soda is a rug deodorant" does not seem metaphorical. Many theorists have added the restriction that metaphors are literally untrue, or in the terms of linguistic theorists, "semantically deviant" (Matthews 1971). In this view, we recognize a metaphor by its violation of linguistic selection restrictions which govern what sense a lexical item can assume in relation to other lexical items in a sentence (Katz, 1964). For example, we recognize that the statement "Nissan Trucks (are) Hardbodies" is metaphorical by noting the incompatibility of, among other things, the marker [ + made of steel ] attached to trucks and the marker [ + made of flesh ] attached to hard bodies. However, Loewenberg (1975) and others have criticized this view by arguing that it focuses on literal falsity as a defining characteristic of metaphor when in fact falsity is a frequent but not a necessary characteristic of metaphorical statements. For example, a consumer might say that, "My stock broker is a gambler" and, if the broker plays cards, convey a literal and metaphorical truth. Loewenberg (1975) suggests that metaphors can only be identified by considering the context beyond the sentence in which the statement occurs. Johnson (1981) agrees with this view suggesting that "our identification of an utterance as metaphorical does seem to involve some strain between the normal sense of the utterance and the total speech situation in which it occurs" (p. 23). In identifying metaphor, an important part of the speech situation may be the listener's inference about the speaker's intention. People assume that communication is purposeful (Grice 1975) and rely partly upon their perception of the communicator's intention to decide whether a statement should be interpreted as metaphorical or not. The consumer who encounters the statement "Nissan Trucks: The Hardbodies" could take the statement literally. After all, trucks do have hard (steel) bodies. But the consumer may note the statement is part of an ad and expect colorful metaphorical language that describes cars and trucks in human and animal terms that appeal to the truck's intended consumers. Such extra-linguistic contextual knowledge may facilitate the consumer's recognition of the statement as metaphorical and then guide the consumer's efforts to interpret the metaphor. For example, the consumer could think of many ways that a Nissan truck is like a well-muscled body (e.g., the more muscle mass a body has; the more calories are required to maintain the body) but, once again, the consumer realizes advertisers intend to convey favorable attributes about their products and this inference no doubt encourages focus on attributes like strength and durability.

The issue of what metaphors are and how they can be identified is far from resolved despite the long history of scholarship on this issue. But as the Nissan truck example illustrates, the study of promotional metaphors seems capable of furthering understanding of these issues.


Theories of metaphor comprehension and appreciation are concerned with how people derive meaning from non-literal statements. Three major schools of thought or theories--the anomaly view, the comparison view, and the interactionist view-have dominated discussion of metaphor processing and evaluation. These theories are particularly interesting from a marketing perspective because they each suggest different guidelines for constructing effective promotional metaphors.

Prior to discussing these theories, a few terms need definition. Consider the metaphor, "Today's Chevrolet: The Heartbeat of America." The subject of a metaphor (e.g., "Today's Chevrolet") is called the tenor. The thing the tenor is compared to is called the vehicle (e.g., "The Heartbeat of America"). As noted, two important dependent variables in the study of metaphors are comprehensibility and aptness. Comprehensibility is merely whether people grasp the metaphor's intended meaning, and has often been measured in past studies as a simple rating of how understandable a metaphor seems (Katz, Paivio, and Marschark 1985). "Aptness" is a construct that seems to be unique to the metaphor literature. Apt metaphors are usually described as good, pleasing, and appropriate metaphors (Katz, Paivio and Marschuk 1985).

The Anomaly View

The anomaly view is perhaps the least developed account of metaphor comprehension and aptness of the three to be reviewed. Essentially, the emphasis in the anomaly view is on dissimilarity between subject and tenor. Anomaly theorists have focused on attempting to account for how people understand literally meaningless statements such as "Chevys are the heartbeat of our country." Scholars with this perspective tend to be linguistic theorists who see a metaphor occurring when the rules of a grammar are violated by a literally untrue assertion (e.g., Campbell 1975, Chomsky 1964, Katz 1964, Ziff 1964). Most of these scholars' theories focus on how linguistic rules are dropped, loosened, or changed to allow the tenor and vehicle of the metaphor to be compared, at least at a more abstract level. In their view, the motive for this process is to reduce the anomaly created by the comparison of unlike concepts.

Anomaly theorists tend to focus on dissimilarity as the source of aptness in metaphor (e.g., Campbell 1975). To these scholars, differences create tension, incongruity, and novelty. The perspective suggests that better metaphors will compare dissimilar concepts, at least to the point where the metaphor becomes incomprehensible.

At least two problems decrease the anomaly view's value as a theory of metaphor quality (Tourangeau and Sternberg 1981). First, as the concepts compared in a metaphor become more and more disparate, the metaphor may become incomprehensible. If comprehension is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for aptness, the anomaly view fails for extreme examples. For example, "Nissan Trucks are Milkshakes" seems neither comprehensible nor apt. A second problem is that beyond suggesting that more dissimilar concepts are more apt, the anomaly view says little about why dissimilar comparisons are more apt or how they are understood. Usually, anomaly theorists rely on feature-matching to explain how people try to understand a metaphor like "Nissan Trucks are Milkshakes" In this case, the perceiver might search for similarities between Nissan Trucks and Milkshakes, perhaps noting that both cost money, are enjoyed by young people, etc. Although similarities can be found, their relation to the aptness of the comparison is not apparent. The analysis of feature matching seems to contribute little insight beyond the comparison view, to be discussed next

The Comparison View ; The comparison view has a long history in the literature on metaphor, and a number of different versions of this view have been advanced (Johnson 1981). In its simplest form this view asserts that we comprehend a metaphor of the form A is B merely by finding the set of similarities between A and B. In other words, the meaning of the metaphor is the set of similarities between the concepts. Comparison theories also often suggest that a metaphor will be perceived as more apt to the extent the two things compared have more attributes in common.

Recent versions of the comparison view have been advanced by Johnson and Malgady (1979) and Ortony (1979). Johnson and Malgady (1979) advance a relatively simple model of metaphor comprehension that begins with the assumption that the meaning of a word can be represented by a set of features. When two words are combined in a metaphor, "the meaning of the word combination is determined by an additive summation of the feature sets or vectors for the words making up the compound." They suggest that the shared features of a metaphor are "raised in salience" in the resulting representation of the compound. They acknowledge that their model says nothing about how features are matched or whether some features are more likely to be matched than others. However, this shortcoming has long been a focus of criticism of the comparison view.

Black (1955) criticized the comparison view by noting that any two objects are to some extent similar, yet 1) not all comparisons are perceived as metaphors, and 2) even if a comparison is perceived as a metaphor (e.g., consider the metaphor "men are wolves"), we tend to ignore some similarities between men and wolves (e.g., both have backbones) and focus on others as the meaning of the metaphor. Black's criticism is essentially that a theory of metaphor comprehension and aptness needs to say more than merely "similar features are matched."

Tourangeau and Sternberg (1981) share this criticism but go father by pointing out that the meaning of a metaphor often is more than the sum of the two term's shared characteristics, particularly if the focus is on literally shared characteristics. For example, the metaphor "Men are wolves" encourages us to see that both men and wolves are predatory, but men and wolves are predatory in different ways. The features are only similar, and therefore not exactly matched in similarity. In fact, the metaphor encourages us to apply attributes of the vehicle's predacity to the tenor's predacity that do not match. That is, the metaphor encourages us to "raise the probability" that attributes such as "voracious, ruthless, and insatiably murderous" apply to men. Of course, naturalists would likely disagree that the last mentioned attributes characterize wolves. Thus, a metaphor may create meaning beyond the usual meanings of matching attributes. According to Tourangeau and Sternberg, a metaphor may be more than the sum of its parts.

Ortony (1979) developed a version of the comparison view that attempts to deal with criticisms like Black's that "matching" is not a sufficiently specific account of metaphor comprehension. Ortony argues that people focus more on some matching features in interpreting a metaphor than others. More specifically, he suggests that people interpret a metaphor by matching salient features of the vehicle to nonsalient features of the tenor. He does not maintain that these matching features need be exact and literal matches, but only matches to "similar" features of tenor and vehicle. Ortony's work deals with some but not all the criticisms of the comparison view. Tourangeau and Sternberg (1981) point that Ortony's view does not focus on the way in which metaphors seem to reinterpret or create attributes. Furthermore, they note that his view acknowledges the presence of dissimilarity between the tenor and vehicle but does little to attempt to account for the possible contribution of dissimilarity to the perception of a metaphor as more creative, novel, and apt.

The Interaction View

Interactive theories of metaphor comprehension argue that the subject and vehicle of a metaphor interact to create a new meaning that is more than the intersection of the two concepts' feature sets. The interaction view emphasizes that a metaphoric comparison may encourage the perceiver to reinterpret both the tenor and the vehicle. The meaning of the metaphor results not just from a feature-by-feature matching of the literal features of tenor and vehicle but from a matching of characteristics in each concept that may be created by the metaphor itself. For example, the metaphor, "1988 Jaguar XJ6: A New Breed of Cat Prowls the Road," encourages the perceiver to reinterpret the literal meaning of "cat prowling for food," to include elements of status competition instead of competition for food, and to include elements of elegance, grace, and sophistication that might otherwise not be salient aspects of the image of a cat prowling.

Tourangeau and Sternberg (1981) have advanced the most recent and complete interactive model of metaphor comprehension. Their "domains-interaction" model argues that the best, most "apt" metaphors are those that show a close point-by-point correspondence between two widely separate domains or categories. This model considers two kinds of similarities. One is between-domain similarity, the similarity between the domains, or categories, of the tenor and vehicle. According to the model, a metaphor tends to be perceived as more apt, but less comprehensible, to the extent the tenor and vehicle are from disparate categories. However, the model acknowledges that the metaphor must at least be comprehensible to be perceived as apt. The other type of similarity, called within-domain similarity, is the degree to which the network of beliefs about the tenor is perceived as corresponding to the network of beliefs about the vehicle. For example, Proctor and Gamble's Dove soap has a metaphoric name. Obviously, soap and birds are widely separated domains. However, P&G has designed and promoted Dove soap to have attributes similar to a Dove. For example, the soap is white, gentle, and, like a Dove is thought to be pure and "innocent," i.e., lacking in harmful additives. According to the model, the comprehensibility of a metaphor should increase to the extent within-domain similarity increases. However, if tenor and vehicle are from similar domains, the metaphor will seem less apt because it is an obvious, trite, "easy' comparison.

The domains-interaction model incorporates insights provided by the anomaly and comparison views but-goes beyond either. Prom the anomaly view, the domains-interaction approach borrows the suggestion that a comparison of more disparate categories may be perceived as more "metaphorical" or clever than the comparison of similar categories However, the comparison of extremely disparate categories often seems bizarre rather than apt. The question that arises is under what circumstances comparison of disparate categories seems apt. For the answer, the model borrows from the comparison view the insight that comparisons that are more complete are perceived as better. Tourangeau and Sternberg (1981) as well as Trick and Katz (1986) have tested this model and overall their results support the relationships the model hypothesizes between within and between category similarity and measures of metaphor comprehension and aptness. However, the interaction model still needs further development. Like the comparison view, the mode is still somewhat vague about a variety of issues such as what' is or is-not a metaphor, the process of metaphor comprehension, and more specifically the process of within-domain attribute matching.

The interaction model provides suggestions for the creation of more effective promotional metaphors. Better metaphors will use tenors and vehicles chosen from disparate categories that occupy similar positions within their categories. I attempting to create such metaphors, marketers should consider how the vehicle (e.g., "Hardbodies' is similar to, and illuminates salient attributes of the tenor (Nissan trucks) that the advertiser wishes to emphasize. Ideally, the vehicle might suggest a novel, clever, attention getting but understandable comparison that causes consumers to think about salient competitive advantages of the advertised product, and perhaps encourages them to add favorable affect or beliefs about the vehicle to their associations about the product.

In further research using the domains interaction perspective, Sternberg and Nigro (1983 have investigated how the presentation of a metaphor, specifically the order in which its terms are presented, influences perception of the metaphor's aptness. For example, they asked subjects to rate the aptness of different arrangement of a metaphor. Two of the forms are shown below

(1) Bees in a hive are a Roman mob.

(2) Bees are a Roman mob in a hive.

They found that subjects rated the second arrangement as more apt than the first. Their explanation for this result is that the second form increases the perception of tenor-vehicle interaction relative to the first form. In the first form, the sentence is merely "Bees in a hive = Roman mob." In the second form, the terms of comparison are mixed across the "are." This type of research might be relevant to advertisers interested in presenting their metaphors in the most effective way.

Stages of Processing

The views of metaphor processing discussed above focus on the characteristics of metaphors that influence their perceived aptness and comprehensibility. Another stream of research on metaphor processing has focused on the issue of whether the processing of non-literal statements requires more stages than the processing of literal statements. A three-stage model of non-literal and metaphoric language processing has been proposed and supported by Grice (1975), Clark and Lucy (1975), Searle (1979), and Janus and Bever (1985). These researchers begin with the assumption that people expect linguistic interactions to be governed by a "cooperativeness" principle in which communications are assumed to be truthful and informative. In the first stage of discourse processing, the model assumes people automatically construct a mental representation of the literal meaning of a phrase such as "Today's Chevrolet: The Heartbeat of America." Second, the perceiver tests this literal interpretation in context to determine if it is plausible and appropriate. Taken literally, the above phrase, which involves not one but two metaphors, makes no sense at all because Americans do not share a beating heart, and today's Chevies cannot be heartbeats. If the perceiver rejects the literal interpretation as the intended meaning, he or she then searches for the intended non-literal meaning. In this case, the perceiver might realize that "heartbeat" is an implicit metaphor for "collective values and folkways" and then begin to search for the relationship between Chevies and the national character.

The three-stage model implies that metaphors, unlike literal statements, are not understood automatically, and require more cognitive effort and time to understand than literal statements. In support of the three-stage model, Janus and Bever (1985) have found longer reading and processing times for metaphors as compared to literal statements.

For advertisers, the implications of this model include the possibility that consumers might take longer to comprehend metaphoric communications, but also might tend to process such communications more deeply than literal comparisons .

As an alternative to the three-stage model, Glucksberg, Gildea, and Bookin (1982) have argued that metaphors and literals are processed in the same way "using the same cognitive and inferencing machinery" In support of their contention, they cite Ortony et. al.'s (1978) finding that metaphors take no longer than literals to process, and that their own finding that metaphor meaning is accessed simultaneously with literal meaning (also see Glidea and Glucksberg 1983).

As with many controversies in the metaphor literature, the stages of processing debate has not yet been resolved and therefore presents an opportunity to consumer researchers.



Very little research has focused on the factors that make one metaphor more memorable than another. The few studies available indicate that metaphors differ from one another in their memorability and that the vehicle may be more important than the tenor of a metaphor in organizing people's comprehension and memory of the metaphor. Marschark- and Hunt (1985) asked subjects to rate metaphors on a set of measures of metaphor characteristics. Later they tested the subjects' unaided and aided recall for the metaphors. They found that only their measures of the number of interpretations subjects could give to the metaphor and the imageability of the metaphor's tenor were consistently related to recall. Verbugge and McCarrell (1977) performed a series of experiments involving cued recall and concluded that the vehicle-of a metaphor is more important than the tenor for guiding comprehension of a metaphor, and organizing memory for its meaning. Further research on factors that influence the memorability of metaphors seems needed and could be a useful contribution by consumer researchers, especially considering the probable significance of the issue to advertisers


Marketers often present metaphors to consumers visually instead of verbally or in writing. Despite the prevalence of visual metaphor in the arts (paintings, photography, movies) as well as advertising, there have been few empirical studies of the role of imagery in the comprehension, appreciation and memory of metaphors, although the literature on interactive imagery seems highly related to this issue (e.g., Alesandrini 1983).

The few studies that have explored imagery and metaphor usually note Paivio's (1979) perspective on the role of imagery in metaphor. From his dual-coding theory, Paivio predicted that imagery should benefit comprehension and memory for metaphor. Several studies support these predictions (Marschark, Katz, and Pavio 1983; Katz, Paivio, and Marschark 1985; Marschark and Hunt 1985). Paivio also predicted that vehicle imagery is more important than topic imagery in the comprehension of metaphor. He suggests that, "metaphor processing begins with and is guided by the vehicle, especially if it has high image evoking properties. In metaphorical terms, a high-imagery vehicle functions as a particularly efficient 'conceptual peg' for retrieval of conceptual information" (Paivio and Clark 1986, p. 98). In a set of studies, Paivio and Clark found overall support for this hypothesis. Katz (1989), in a study of the vehicles that subjects chose to complete metaphors, found that his subjects preferred concrete over more abstract vehicles. This finding also seems to provide some support for the importance of imagery, and particularly vehicle imagery, in metaphor appreciation although Katz studied concreteness and not imagery per se.


Metaphors, like other types of communication, occur in contexts. Developing research shows that the context a metaphor occurs in can influence its interpretation and the ease with which it is comprehended (Shinju and Myers 1987, Inhoff et al. 1984, McCabe 1983). These laboratory studies suggest that the contexts in which promotional metaphors occur may influence their meaning. For example, if an ad using the "Nissan Truck: The Hardbodies" metaphor appears in a sports magazine, the comparison to an athletic body may be emphasized. Once again, further research on context effects seems warranted in consumer settings.


The opportunities for future research on metaphors in promotional communications are numerous and interesting. Only a few of the possibilities can be suggested. The models of metaphor comprehension and quality discussed earlier have not been thoroughly validated. In particular, the domains-interaction approach has only been tested in a handful of studies. So opportunities exist to further compare, develop, and refine these or new models of metaphor processing in the context of consumer behavior. As suggested earlier, issues concerning memory for metaphor, the role of imagery in metaphor processing, and the influence of context on metaphor perception seem ripe for study by consumer researchers.


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