A Visual Esperanto? the Pictorial Metaphor in Global Advertising

ABSTRACT - The increasing use of pictorial metaphors in advertisements is meant to engage and cognitively challenge the audience. At the same time, the growing popularity of standardized visual images in global advertisements is fueled by the belief that pictures are part of a Auniversal language.@ This paper discusses the conceptual implications of these two trends on the cross-cultural interpretation of pictorial advertisements. It is argued that the use of pictorial metaphors for global advertisements neglects the role of culture on the consumer’s comprehension of visual cues. A cross-cultural research agenda exploring the effects of visual advertisements within a semiotic framework is proposed.


Michael A. Callow and Leon G. Schiffman (1999) ,"A Visual Esperanto? the Pictorial Metaphor in Global Advertising", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, eds. Bernard Dubois, Tina M. Lowrey, and L. J. Shrum, Marc Vanhuele, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 17-20.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 1999      Pages 17-20


Michael A. Callow, The City University of New York, U.S.A.

Leon G. Schiffman, The City University of New York, U.S.A.


The increasing use of pictorial metaphors in advertisements is meant to engage and cognitively challenge the audience. At the same time, the growing popularity of standardized visual images in global advertisements is fueled by the belief that pictures are part of a "universal language." This paper discusses the conceptual implications of these two trends on the cross-cultural interpretation of pictorial advertisements. It is argued that the use of pictorial metaphors for global advertisements neglects the role of culture on the consumer’s comprehension of visual cues. A cross-cultural research agenda exploring the effects of visual advertisements within a semiotic framework is proposed.


In today’s global environment, the consumer is constantly faced with a barrage of visual images that claim to satisfy his or her needs, wants, and desires. It has been suggested that visual communication is based on a universal understanding, given that most consumers can comprehend pictorial messages (Bougery and Guimaraes, 1993; Kernan and Domzal, 1993). This would seem to explain why there has been a shift to global positioning strategies and the creation of global brands such as Benetton that rely almost exclusively on visual images instead of copy in their advertising (Evans and Riyait, 1993). The notion of a "visual Esperanto" is an appealing concept, since it proposes a means for standardizing the advertising message across countries and benefiting from strategic consistency and economies of scale. It may come as a surprise, therefore, that this important topic has received minimal attention within the academic literature.

Does the mere fact that we can all "read" a picture in an ad really mean that we tend to interpret it in a similar fashion? Traditional research in advertising has considered the role of images as a peripheral cue that is meant to trigger an affective response from the audience (for a review of this literature, see Scott 1994). Recently, however, researchers have paid greater attention to the type of information that consumers derive from visual communication (Phillips, 1997). This alternative approach to visual imagery proposes that consumers are often forced to "think into" the meaning of complex pictorial metaphors to infer the meaning of the message. The driving force behind this reasoning is an attempt to cut through the communication clutter, to make the familiar appear shocking, thus grabbing the audience’s attention. Semiotic theory posits that for these types of symbolic metaphors the interpretation is culture-specific (Berger, 1984). This being the case, one may question the effectivenessCor at least the limitationsCof the "visual Esperanto" approach.

This paper examines the role of the pictorial metaphor in cross-cultural advertising and questions the universality of meaning of standardized visual ads. It argues that the metaphorical meaning of pictorial elements in an ad is at times culturally-determined. The implications of this position are then discussed.


The traditional approach to the meaning of pictures in advertising has been that they reflect objects in the real world. This means that visual language is different from words. Words are arbitrary creations (Saussure, 1959), whereas images are nanvely assumed to be naturalistic representations of the external environment. This would imply that an individual does not have to learn the meaning of pictures as he or she does the meaning of words. Given that the meaning of pictures is deemed not to be arbitrary, it is considered to be a "universal language." Fowles (1996, pg. 84, italics original) sums up this position as follows:

Because images are one kind of symbol and words are distinctly another, a deep, modal tension exists between them within advertising. Words are completely arbitrary creations; whether we call the domesticated pet dog or Hund or chien makes absolutely no difference so long as those with whom we are most likely to converse are willing to employ the same symbol. An illustration of a dog, however, is another matter; it is a similar figure irrespective of the local language and thus is not arbitrary but a naturalistic representation.

This suggests that advertisers can rely on visuals in their ads to standardize the meaning of the message. Recently, however, advertisers have rightly begun to question the assumption that the meaning of a picture does not exhibit any metaphorical or symbolizing properties of its own (Fowles, 1996; Phillips, 1997). Indeed, the fields of visual art, anthropology, and psychology acknowledge that individuals do infer metaphorical associations with images much as they do with words (Scott, 1994). The art historian Sir Ernst Gombrich points out that the systems of words and images are interrelated (Fowles, 1996; Gardner, 1982). A person has to already have a metaphorical schema of an object such as a dog in order to make sense of the pictorial representation of the object. The picture is thereforein part naturalistic and in part learned; the audience identifies the picture as a representation of a real dog and then makes a connection with the concept of a dog and its associations. For example, the metaphor "It’s a dog’s life" may be conjured up. In this case, the picture becomes a symbol for something greater: the dog is a metaphor for laziness. The meaning of a picture is more than a one-on-one representation of an external object, tying in other metaphorical associations that are inferred by the audience.

Breaking through the Clutter: Metaphors in Visual Images

The growing use of complex visual images in advertisements emphasizes the perceived importance of visual thought among the advertising community. The rhetorical approach to advertising suggests that advertising creators continually defy convention with the creation of unexpected metaphors. A metaphor is "an instance of nonliteral language in which the intended propositional content must be determined by the construction of an analogy" (Fraser, 1993, p. 332). In order to decipher these novel metaphors, the audience tends to rely on cultural conventions (Phillips, 1997).

Not all visual images in advertisements require interpretation by analogy. Indeed, some visual images are highly explicit in their intended meaning, whereas others are highly implicit. The metaphorical complexity of visual images is varied and, one would expect, has a significant impact on whether the meaning is uniform across cultures. The semiotic framework, developed by the philosopher Charles Pierce, provides an insightful typology into the metaphorical nature of visual signs.

An Arbitrary or Naturalistic Meaning

Semiotics is the study of signs, usually in the form of pictures or words. The sign is made up of the signified and the signifier (Saussure, 1959; Culler, 1986). The signified is the object or concept that the picture or word refers to. The signifier is the picture or word itself, used to label the signified so that individuals can communicate with one another. There are three types of signs: the icon, the index, and the symbol.

The icon is a sign in which the signifier explicitly resembles the signified (Berger, 1984). For example, a picture of a bottle of cologne can be interpreted at the iconic level as an illustration of the packaged product. As long as the audience is familiar with the object in the picture, then the iconic meaning of the picture is clear, since it is a naturalistic representation of reality. The concept of a bottle of cologne, for instance, may be similar in both the United States and France, although the analogies that are created from this concept may differ. At the iconic level of interpretation, a pictorial representation of this object would be understood among American and French consumers without the need for translation. If the main goal of a print ad were to let the product "speak for itself," then one would assume that this pictorial image could be standardized between countries. At the iconic level, therefore, the notion of a visual Esperanto may work if the primary intention is merely to depict the product or brand, and if the target audience is satisfied with this iconic interpretation.

The indexical interpretation of a sign relies on a causal connection between the signified and the signifier. The audience must make a logical, non-arbitrary inference between the picture and the object that it represents. For example, a smile indicates happiness, be it in New York or Paris. The audience must make a metaphorical leap between the picture and the concept it represents. However, since this metaphorical leap is considered logical, there is still a "universality" in the meaning of the sign.

The symbol is more complex than the other two signs. The relationship between the signified and the signifier is completely arbitrary. The word "house" is arbitrarily chosen in the English language to represent theconcept of a house, much as the terms "maison" and "casa" are used in French and Spanish respectively. Pictures also take on symbolic meaning. In their study on the use of creative strategy in French advertising, Taylor, Hoy, and Haley (1996, pg. 1) remark on the different pictorial metaphors used:

Plastic wrapping surrounding packaged salad is a windbreak. Compatibility between computers and software simulates sexual intercourse. An industrial machine can be your mistress. Such metaphorical thinkingCin which one thing stands for anotherCsounds strange to American advertisers, but these examples represent the way French professionals think about products and how they should be presented to French consumers.

The symbol is therefore culture-specific. Individuals within a culture share a common knowledge that helps them communicate with one another at this level of interpretation. Unlike the other two types of signs, symbolic knowledge has to be learned in order to be understood. At this level of interpretation, the visual Esperanto hypothesis does not hold. Individuals from one culture are likely to share a different symbolic system than individuals from another culture. They will therefore interpret images differently at the symbolic level. This has important ramifications for the global advertiser, and poses an interesting question as to whether target audiences from around the world interpret different types of visual signs in ads at the iconic, indexical, and/or symbolic level.


According to semiotic theory, the visual sign in advertising can hold meaning at the iconic, indexical, and/or symbolic level. Given the amount of clutter in the media environment, the trend in American advertising has been to rely on visual images that challenge familiarity with unconventional metaphors (Phillips, 1997). These metaphors are neither natural nor causal, and are arbitrarily selected by advertising creators. At the same time, the globalization of communication and technology has led to a drive for standardization in the advertising industry. These two forcesCthe drive for metaphorical complexity and the drive for visual standardizationCappear to be at odds with one another.

A Drive Towards Metaphorical Complexity

An important cross-cultural issue with the first driving force is whether the use of complex metaphors is a universal phenomenon in advertising. Whereas there is a clear trend towards visual complexity in American advertising, it is still unclear whether there is a similar pattern in other countries. It is highly likely that the propensity to use symbolic metaphors in visual ads differs from one country to another. Indeed, it may be the case that in some countries meaning of visual images rests predominantly at the iconic and/or indexical level of interpretation. In fact, Hall’s (1989) classification of high-context versus low-context communication styles provides a useful insight into a potential relationship between a country’s communication style and the use of metaphor.

Implicit versus Explicit Communication Styles

According to Hall, communication styles vary in terms of the amount of implicit meaning that is ingrained in the message. In a high-context culture, the communication style relies heavily on implicit sources of meaning such as non-verbal cues. In low-context cultures, on the other hand, the message is highly explicit in terms of the information that is being conveyed. The majority of the information derived from a high-context message is therefore either impied in the physical context or internalized in the person. Alternatively, in a low-context message the mass of the information is vested in a highly explicit code (Hall, 1989). Hall points out that most Eastern cultures use high-context communication styles, whereas most Western cultures rely on a more low-context communication style.

If this is so, then one would expect that the communication styles would be reflected in the tendency to favor either symbolic or iconic/indexical types of signs. Since symbolic signs are by their very nature highly implicit, it is likely that they would be predominant within Eastern cultures that rely on a high-context style of communication. At the same time, low-context cultures would have a lesser emphasis on symbolic forms of communication, preferring a more explicit communication style. From an advertising perspective, this means that symbolic visual metaphors would be more predominant in Eastern cultures than in Western cultures. Whereas the trend in American advertising is towards greater use of visual symbolism, it may be the case that the propensity of these types of metaphors is still significantly lower compared to, say, Japan. This is an interesting proposition that merits empirical analysis.

A Drive Towards Visual Standardization

Another important issue facing the global advertiser is whether visual meaning is universal or culture-specific. As was mentioned earlier, semiotic theory suggests that at least one type of signCthe symbolCis dependent upon arbitrary codes. Proponents of standardization would argue that the globalization of media communications and technology is homogenizing the way that global consumers interpret symbols. In other words, the arbitrary codes are becoming more and more universal with the advent of the global marketplace. At the same time, the detractors of standardization would argue that cultural differences still outweigh similarities, and that a large proportion of a consumer’s metaphorical conventions are still culture-specific.

What is clear, however, is that this important topic has received minimal attention within the academic community. Whereas there have been some studies in cross-cultural interpretations of pictorial ads (see for instance Evans and Riyait, 1993), very little is known about the role and interpretation of visual metaphors from one culture to another. It may be that consumers create metaphors to reflect their underlying values and motivations. This being the case, supposedly iconic images may in fact take on symbolic meaning for the audience. Indeed, a target audience living in a metaphor-full world may seek to fill in the void created by an iconic interpretation and re-create the meaning of the icon using culture-specific metaphors. For instance, the image of a bottle of cologne by itself in a print ad may be interpreted by an achievement-oriented consumer as a metaphor for independence. Or, it may be that there is no such thing as an iconic interpretation of a product. The product itself, or even the brand, may indeed incorporate a cultural meaning to the target audience. More importantly, the concept and metaphorical associations of a familiar product such as cologne may differ between countries. Further research is needed to understand how consumers from different cultures go about interpreting these visual messages, and to determine whether iconic interpretations are possible when using visual images that simply "show" the product.

From a normative perspective, it is still unclear whether standardized visual advertisements should rely predominantly on symbolic or iconic/indexical signs. If the codes used to decipher arbitrary metaphors are indeed similar from one country to another, then symbolic visual signs are more appealing in order to stand out from the clutter. If, however, there are significant differences in cultural metaphors, then this would suggest that images eliciting iconic and/or indexical interpretations would be more appropriate. Unfortunately, howevr, this approach runs contrary to the trend towards complexity, and risks being engulfed by communication clutter. Alternatively, a customized approach would allow complex visual ads to be aired across countries, even though the message loses uniformity of meaning. It should be noted that the standardization versus customization decision regarding the ad will be influenced by other factors such as whether the product and other elements of the marketing mix are standardized or adapted from one country to another.

The position of this paper is that cultural codes are still significantly varied between many countries and that the meaning of symbolic visual images will therefore vary. For instance, in Spain a white carnation flower is a symbol of mourning. In China, a man wearing a green hat is a sign that his wife has been unfaithful. In India the owl is a symbol of bad luck, whereas it is often used as a metaphor for wisdom in many Western societies. These visual metaphors are culture-specific, and are relatively unknown among consumers from other countries. It is also unclear whether truly iconic interpretations of visual ads can exist in advertising, with the audience perhaps creating metaphorical associations when none are intended.

Cultural models may provide an insight into the general nature of metaphors for each culture. For instance, Hofstede’s (1991) individualism-collectivism dimension may help predict underlying values that are of importance to a particular country. In a collectivist culture such as the Philippines, for instance, a coffee ad with an image of a woman by herself sipping a cup of coffee may elicit unintended negative interpretations of solitude and loneliness. Or, a metaphor for personal achievement may be less effective compared to group achievement. In a more individualist culture, such as the United States, however, the image of the woman drinking coffee by herself may conjure up metaphors for independence, power, and achievement. To date, the authors are unaware of any academic research into the effect of culture on the interpretation of visual images in advertising.


The use of pictorial metaphors in global advertisements is an important issue that can further our understanding of how culture influences the way consumers decode messages. Visual images are more than naturalistic representations of reality. Advertisers are constantly applying unconventional metaphors to challenge the audience’s cognitive processes. In order to clearly understand the message, the consumer must rely on prior knowledge. A fundamental issue in cross-cultural advertising, therefore, is whether this prior knowledge is similar from one culture to another. It is clear that the "visual Esperanto" approach is too simplistic, and one that most theoreticians and practitioners do not endorse. Semiotic theory proposes that only iconic and indexical signs are truly universal. Symbolic visual signs, on the other hand, rely on culture-specific knowledge.

The increasing use of complex visual metaphors in domestic advertising is borne out of the need to catch the audience’s interest. This approach, however, is fraught with uncertainty when targeting a global market. If, as semiotic theory holds, symbolism varies from one culture to another, then the use of a standardized pictorial image in the global market could lead to systematic variations in meaning across countries. In order to create a truly universal message, the standardized pictorial image would require iconic or indexical interpretations. Yet, one could argue that the audience may interpret supposedly iconic images (depicting the product) within a symbolic framework, in effect "over-reading" into the meaning of the visual. Alternatively, within a cluttered advertising medium, the use of these types of signs may be less effective in stirring the consumer’s interest. In particular, in high-context cultures, explicit messages may be labele as too simplistic. This would suggest a customized approach to creating complex visual advertisements.

Future research in this area should examine the relationship between culture and the pictorial metaphor. The dichotomy between high-context and low-context communication styles across cultures, for example, suggests that symbolic metaphors are more predominant in Eastern cultures than in Western cultures. This being the case, the apparent lack of a metaphor in a visual ad (i.e. a so-called iconic representation of the product or brand) may in fact challenge audiences living in a metaphor-full environment to develop unintended analogies using cultural conventions. Advertising researchers would therefore benefit from a greater understanding into how consumers from different cultures think into the different types of visual signs outlined in semiotic theory.


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Michael A. Callow, The City University of New York, U.S.A.
Leon G. Schiffman, The City University of New York, U.S.A.


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4 | 1999

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