Figurative Language in Services Advertising: the Nature and Uses of Imagery

ABSTRACT - Language in services advertising is analyzed in terms of literary conventions of imagery and figures of speech. Flow chart of figurative continuum is presented. Figures such as simile, metaphor, symbol, allegory, and personification are defined with examples and textual analysis of ads. Special needs for services advertising to tangibilize the intangible offering, make a complex product clear to the consumer, and differentiate one brand from another are shown to relate to figurative language use. Propositions for effective use of language in services messages are developed, and further research areas suggested.


Barbara B. Stern (1988) ,"Figurative Language in Services Advertising: the Nature and Uses of Imagery", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, eds. Micheal J. Houston, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 185-190.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, 1988      Pages 185-190


Barbara B. Stern, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey


Language in services advertising is analyzed in terms of literary conventions of imagery and figures of speech. Flow chart of figurative continuum is presented. Figures such as simile, metaphor, symbol, allegory, and personification are defined with examples and textual analysis of ads. Special needs for services advertising to tangibilize the intangible offering, make a complex product clear to the consumer, and differentiate one brand from another are shown to relate to figurative language use. Propositions for effective use of language in services messages are developed, and further research areas suggested.


Both advertising and poetry are consciously created literary structures which affect the perceiver through the condensed use of evocative language. Advertising tries to "breathe life into some otherwise inanimate object" (Durgee 1986/7, p. 57), just as poetry seeks to create vivid dramatic experiences for the perceiver (Brooks and Warren 1960). The "poetry of commerce" (Rimer 1987) is a particularly important concept for services advertising, thought to show special needs for creative imagery to tangibilize essentially intangible offerings (see George and Berry 1981; Shostack 1977). Since services are generally viewed as different from goods on the dimension of abstraction, it has been suggested that the function of services advertising is to make the offering "'known' by the tangible clues, the tangible evidence, that surround it" (Shostack 1977, p. 76). The use of imagery in figurative expressions thus appears to carry a heavier burden in conveying the essence of a service than a good. Creative language can be used to endow the abstract service with "sense appeal," and an analysis of figures of speech can help advertisers determine which kinds will most effectively reach consumers.

Language and other symbolic structures have been studied in consumer behavior in terms of consumption as a set of symbolic activities (Hirschman and Holbrook 1982; Holbrook and Hirschman 1982), and in advertising in terms of information processing (MacInnis and Price 1987) and emotional effects (Friestad and Thorson 1986; Hill and Mazis 1986). Advertising language itself has been studied in a psycholinguistic (Harris et al. 1986) and semiotic context (Cleveland 1986), to arrive at the nature of message meaning (see Levy 1986; Olson 1986). For the most part, however, these studies deal with tangible and socially visible goods rather than services, and do not consider language per se as a literary construct.

This paper proposes an alternative way of examining figurative language: the use of literary theory to investigate textual messages in services ads. It will investigate advertising language in light of the poetic tradition in three ways. First, a catalogue of poetic figures of speech available to creators of advertising will be explored. This discussion of the nature and uses of figurative language is based on poetic theory, which provides a typology of terms useful to describe verbal elements in advertising. Next, the special qualities of services advertising which require precise uses of these figures will be considered. Last, a series of propositions concerning effects of figurative language in services advertising will be developed, and suggestions made for operationalization in future research.


Literary theory is based on the assumption that all language is fundamentally symbolic: the individual word "is the symbol, first and foremost...of a 'concept,' in other words, of a convenient capsule of thought that embraces thousands of distinct experiences and that is ready to take in thousands more" (Sapir 1949, p.13). Words can be used denotatively, in a scientifically literal sense, or connotatively, in terms of implied meanings and associations. Modern advertising relies on connotative usage: its language "works by allusion, free association, suggestion, and analogy rather than by literal and logical rule" (Leiss, Kline, and Jhally 1986, p. 239). Advertisers harness the connotative power of words to create positive consumer experiences, within the confines of what is legally permissible. Despite legal constraints mandating scientifically accurate denotative usage in many situations, advertisers have room for the kinds of creative expression considered within the boundaries of literary theory. Poesy deals with non-literal connotative language based on imagery woven into figures of speech. Imagery is defined as any use of sensorially appealing words: it is "the representation in poetry of any sense experience" (Brooks and Warren 1960, p555). For example, the island of Bermuda could be described with scientifical literality by noting its latitude, longitude, land and water mass, flora and fauna, and so forth. But an advertisement for Bermuda (see Figure 1) describes "the gentle, hidden bay" by using imagery which is visual ("hidden") and tactile ("gentle"); the descriptor "patch of sea" adds aural and additional tactile imagery as well. The sensual connotations of imagery are raw materials for dramatizing product attributes and benefits in advertisements.




Text: "Not everyone was meant to know her secrets. This is the gentle hidden bay you've searched for all your life. The reef protected patch of sea where families swim and sail and dive. Bermuda's treasures call you to a gleaming rainbow's end."


Literary convention has categorized figurative language (see, e.g. Brooks and Warren 1960) into a schema based on a literal/figurative continuum (see Figure 2). This provides a common set of terms and traditions for advertising as well as other forms of communication to draw upon. The most commonly used figures in advertising are simile, metaphor, and symbol, figures which can be used to create the somewhat less common structural form of allegory. All figurative language makes use of imagery in comparisons: one thing is said in terms of something else (Barnet 1979), and the subject and object terms in the comparison represent "ideas which have an analogical equivalence to the intended meanings" (Shumaker 1965, p.49). A conceptual classification based on a literality continuum is pictured in Figure 2.

Literal words, of course, mean exactly what they say, and are not considered figures of speech. The more commonly used figures are explained in some detail to clarify the continuum.

A simile is a figure of speech which uses a comparative term- generally "like" or "as" - to conjoin explicitly items from different classes of experience. A literary example is the comparison between "love" and "the rose": the simile reads, 'love is like a rose" An advertising example is the Honda ad for the Acura model which states in the headline: "It's programmed to think like our Formula 1 [racing] car." While the Acura and Formula 1 are both vehicles, they are different enough in quality and form to serve as subject and object terms in the analogy. On the other hand, "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should," memorable for using "like" instead of the more grammatically correct "as," is not a simile: Winston is literally a brand of cigarette.

A metaphor differs from a simile in that the comparative term is omitted: "love is a rose" is the metaphor developed from the simile above. In advertising, "Bermuda is you" and the perfume slogan, "She's very Charlie," are metaphors. These analogies compare two dissimilar entities just as similes do, but are considered to "have more expressive power, and....[be] more flexible and economical" (Korg 1962, p.9). A paraphrase of the Bermuda headline into simile form illustrates the loss of power when the simile is spelled out overtly. The rewrite, "Bermuda is like the qualities that describe your unique personality," is diminished by excess, for in figurative language as well as pictorial art, less is often more.

Symbols, often considered particularly complex forms of comparisons, are a class of representatives which stand for other things (Firth 1973). A symbol is a sensory image "so loaded with significance that it is not simply literal, and it does not simply stand for something else; it is both itself and something else that it richly suggests" (Barnet 1979, p. 198). In our example, the use of "a rose" as a symbol for love illustrates a symbol's function in BOTH literal and figurative fashion - denotatively and connotatively - as well as its non-relatedness to the object represented.



Since semeiotics uses similar concepts, some explanation is needed to avoid semantic confusion. Semiotic "signs" and "signals," unlike literary symbols, are usually defined as possessing characteristics inherently related to the object they represent (see Durgee 1986a). Furthermore, semiotic use of visual and pictorial symbols is generally considered "iconic" (Leiss, Kline, and Sully 1986), and thus outside the accepted verbal bounds of literary theory. However, both visual icon and verbal symbol are alike in being tangible entities with a similar function: each becomes a surrogate for the represented abstraction, since the explicit comparative term has been suppressed. In advertising, iconic and symbolic usage are often intertwined: the Prudential Insurance Company's rock, for example, is a concrete pictorial representation of the abstract notion of stability, and "rock-solid insurance" a verbal symbol of the same trait. But this is not always the case: media such as radio cannot use visual elements, and some advertising practitioners rely more heavily on verbal than visual elements in specific situations (see Ogilvy 1985). New insights into the relationship of visual and verbal symbols (see Rossiter and Percy 1980) may result symbolic structures in poetry are considered.

Figurative language woven into the structural form of allegory, no longer fashionable in literature, has been used to considerable advantage in recent advertising. Allegory, defined as an "extended metaphor," is a well-defined literary form: "a narrative in which the objects and persons are equated with meanings lying outside the narrative itself" (Brooks and Warren 1960). C.S. Lewis considers allegory a representation of a "fundamental equivalence between the immaterial and the can start with an immaterial fact, such as the passions which you actually experience, and can then invent visibilia to express them" (1958, pp.4445). All varieties of figurative language can be used in allegory, a complex art form distinguished by structurally rigorous rules.

Allegory involves personified human traits acting out moral conflicts in dramatic fashion. The two characteristics of personification and conflict allow some advertisements to be interpreted as modern allegorical shorthand, and may account for its popularity. The personification of allegorical figures permits abstract traits to be clothed in recognizably human garb: the Seven Deadly Sins, for example, take repellant human shapes in much medieval literature. Personification has traditionally been a popular method for transmitting complex messages to less-than- literate mass audiences, and shows continued mass appeal because of its dramatic simplicity. Even more important, allegory is rooted in the consciousness of moral conflict- the internal battle between good and evil - which has dominated the human psyche since at least the fourth-century A.D. Prudentius' Psychomachia is usually considered the first allegorical work, and in that poem, the theme of bellum intestinum, the genesis of allegory: "War rages, horrid war/Even in our bones; our double nature sounds/With armed discord" (Lewis 1958, p. 72). The moral conflict of classical allegory seems have been transmuted by analogy to the kinds of conflict (brand, product, candidate, idea) implicit or openly expressed in modern advertising.

Despite the association of allegory with late Medieval and early Renaissance literary tastes, it has been used to good effect in modem advertising. One of the most memorable 1986 ad campaigns can be read as a mini-version of the form: the humanized "Dancing Raisins," wearing sunglasses and sneakers and bopping to "I Heard it on the Grapevine." The raisins personify qualities of liveliness, high spirits, and energy acting . out the concept of healthy natural snacks as "fun," implicitly in conflict with the product category of unwholesome junk food. Similarly, "Mr. Goodwrench," also an allegorical figure, is a human representative of the abstract quality of brand service acumen: the ad tag line states, "No one knows your GM car better than Mr. Goodwrench. No one." Here the conflict is between brands: General Motors' good service quality is imputed to be better than that of Ford, Chrysler, and foreign car makers because GM "is" Mr. Goodwrench.


These figures of speech have important functions for advertising in general and services messages in particular. The purpose of non-literal usage is to make things more imaginatively appealing: "A mere listing of qualities gives a rather flat description; it may be accurate but it does not stir the imagination" (Brooks and Warren-1960, p.92). Figurative language is imaginatively exciting in three ways: it is "concrete, condensed, and interesting" (Barnet 1979, p. 187). Creative use of figurative language can produce messages which are emotionally alive, intellectually appealing, and memorable. The problem in advertising, of course, lies in operationalizing these constructs and extracting measurable insights from literary theory. While literary definitions of figurative functions are subjective, qualitative, and non-measurable, the interpretations are worth examining for associations with concepts already operationalized and accepted in advertising theory.

Poetic concreteness isolates and highlights feelings for the reader by endowing bland abstractions with precision and liveliness. This quality seems to relate to advertising vividness, thought to arouse emotion in consumers (Friestad and Thorson 1986). While controversy exists over vivid versus pallid information and consumer persuasion (see Drumwright 1985; Kiselius and Sternthal 1984), further exploration is needed to test the vividness effects of messages. Figurative condensation leads to a sudden burst of understanding, causing the reader to experience a shock of recognition when s/he "gets" the message. Interest, a result of the imagistic concreteness and condensation, is aroused in the reader, who then may find his/her imaginative stirring so intriguing that the message becomes embedded in memory. The relationship of interest-arousing capabilities of figures of speech to consumer memory encoding processes (see Bettman 1979) requires further study. The literary functions of figurative language may ultimately find scientific corroboration if they can be translated into measurable advertising attributes, particularly brand awareness, recognition, and recall.


Services advertising is thought to have special needs for figures of speech since the services offering is non-tangible (Shostack 1977). While the theory has not yet been tested, some researchers consider it plausible that services impalpability gains "tangibilization" by means of association with appealing imagery cues (see e.g. George and Berry 1981). The symbolic Travelers' umbrella, for example, is a particularly effective way of using a common everyday object with visual and tactile appeal to convey the abstract notion of protection. This condensation enables a simplification of the confusing galaxy of insurance products into the actual benefit sought by consumers: secure protection in a world filled with random danger. Services advertising also has to differentiate the particular brand being offered from others, and can do so by use of imagistic language. If consumers consider a service such as airplane travel generic and commodity-like, they will assign little "specialness" to competing brands. A metaphorical companion such as the United airlines "friend" campaign (See Figure 3) can create brand uniqueness by associating the generic function of business travel with the warmth and companionship of personal friendship. The sensory appeal in "faraway places" is predominantly visual. Additionally, there is also an emotional appeal implicit in the phrase "your friend," which associates personalized intimacy with airline companies, generally viewed as impersonal and uncaring. The headline metaphor is extended in the text by the use of "friendly sties" which business travellers can choose to ny to the Pacific. This symbol widens out the figurative usage to the entire Pacific sky-as-friend. The enriched use of "friend" is reinforced in the third usage, the tag line "go with a friend," which augments the other sensory appeals by kinetic emphasis connecting personal and airplane movement. In under 100 words, then, the memorability of this air transportation service brand has been established. The differentiation from other brands is a result of the use and repetition of figures of speech designed to be embedded in positive ways in consumer memory.



HEADLINE: Your friend in faraway places

TEXT: The most nonstops to the most top Pacific business centers. A very good reason so many business travellers choose the friendly skies to take them across the Pacific. And why you should, too. You'll find our Royal Pacific Service a real comfort along the way. Not to mention a powerful way to increase your Mileage Plus account. So the next time you're headed for Tokyo, Osaka, or any of eleven other Pacific destinations, go with a friend.


Services advertising can make use of sophisticated imagery to enable the consumer to comprehend complex abstractions (Shostack 1977), process them as tangible, and differentiate one brand from competing offerings (George and Berry 1981). Unfortunately, advertising can also use the power of symbolic condensation to obscure by over-simplification, creating figures of speech which intentionally deceive or mislead consumers. Critics of advertising frequently condemn its language as one of "concealment" (Berman, 1981), the obverse of clarification. Further research is needed to test both the beneficial and harmful aspects of figurative usage empirically. Several propositions can be developed to test the effectiveness of services advertising in taking advantage of the full range of figurative language.


Proposition 1: Verbal imagery used in figures of speech (similes and metaphors) is more likely than denotative literal usage (words and numbers) to differentiate one service brand from another.

Numbers seem to have more power to differentiate brands of financial services or supermarkets than bare words such as "money growth" or "milk prices": numbers in ads have been judged slightly more connotative and imagistic than literal words alone (George and Berry 1981). Percentages and/or dollar figures do not seem sufficiently interesting to differentiate a service so that it stands out in a crowded marketplace. In fact, numerical listings such as those which characterize mortgage lending firms or supermarkets may confuse consumers. Since similar products tend to advertise in the same print media space, a full page of generically similar numbers can blur in the consumer's mind. Differentiating the service by means of simile and metaphor seems potentially more useful to harness the connotative ability of advertising language as a marker of brand uniqueness. Differentiation can be measured by brand recognition techniques (Rossiter and Percy 1987) using telephone interviews to test recall of verbal messages.

Proposition 2: Symbolic usage which reinforces the figurative language with visual iconography is more likely than literal words and numbers to differentiate one service brand from another.

Services which break free from message clutter often rely on symbolic usage combining visual AND verbal elements to reinforce each other and establish unique brand differentiation. A visual/verbal symbolic pairing which comes to represent a brand through repeated display of the words/picture can establish a strong reinforcement-by-association effect. Corporate logos and images paired with verbal slogans - the Merrill Lynch bull, "a breed apart" - fall into this category. Interestingly, that symbol has already been modified from a herd of bulls into a solitary one, to meet what was thought to be consumer desire to stand out from the herd. Now the bull is being downgraded to a "cameo appearance" in ads in favor of increased emphasis on people and human emotions (Winters 1987). The exact nature of emotional responses to advertising, however, is only beginning to be investigated (see Zeitlin and Westwood 1986), and the relationship of verbal and pictorial symbolic usage to effects of feelings on consumer responses needs further examination. Some research on verbal versus pictorial information-processing has taken place to date (see Childers and Houston 1984; Rossiter and Percy 1980), and the investigation needs extension to a services context.

Operationalization relevant to services industries requires content analysis of promotions to see how many and what kind of firms use verbal and/or pictorial elements in advertisements. The association between brands with verbal symbols, visual symbols, both, or neither can then be tested by recall measures, utilizing personal interviews if visuals are included (Rossiter and Percy 1987).

Proposition 3: Trite symbols in ads can create brand awareness of a service.

Fresh and original figures of speech, particularly symbols, are difficult to create. Many have been around for centuries and are considered overly conventional and "stale," and thus evocative of little response. But these qualities, viewed as undesirable in poetry (Brooks and Warren 1960), may not have the same negative effects in advertising. Even trite figures in a new advertising context can create awareness of a service brand, since it may be the paradoxical juxtaposition, not the symbol alone, which creates consumer excitement. For example, Massachusetts Financial Services uses objects such as needle-and-thread, spoons, and paper clips - things "which have been around a long time" - to represent the company image: "working hard for investors for 63 years." Tried and true everyday objects here create an association with he very longevity of the ordinary. Conventional symbols are capable of evoking strong reactions long after their originality has waned - the swastika, for example. The proposition that there may be little correlation between a symbol's originality and power in advertising needs testing, since the truly original, extremely difficult to create, may even be counterproductive in effect.

Operationalizing "triteness" can be done by peer judgments, a methodology frequently used in psychological research. One way of creating a trite/original continuum is to use an interdisciplinary compendium of symbols (see e.g. deVries 1976) for list generation. Subjects can then rate the symbols in terms of their judgment of the attribute of ordinariness. While some element of subjectivity is unavoidable, a greater measure of quantification than the lone critic's judgment is achievable. Operationalizing service brand awareness, also relevant to Proposition 4, most likely will involve recall measures, especially those that assess immediate versus delayed effects.

Proposition 4: Bizarre and idiosyncratic symbols in ads can create brand memorability for a service.

Originality is valued by advertising creatives, and may have special usefulness in making a service brand memorable. Some symbols are so original that they can be considered bizarre or idiosyncratic: they at first seem meaningful only to the creator, not the general public. While the assumption in poetic exegesis is that it is the reader's job to make sense out of symbols (see e.g. Richards 1929), this seems an unreasonable demand to make on the consumer of advertising copy. Nevertheless, unusual and out-of-context associations can lead to consumer recall of the ad execution and memory of the brand. The key seems to be the advertiser's skill in establishing the connection clearly for the consumer by making the symbolic comparison explicit, rather than implicit. That is, the advertiser has to do more work than the poet, since the consumer will do less.

An example of originality is the use of the cartoon figure of Garfield the cat as the spokesperson in Embassy Suites Hotels ads, along with the corporate slogan, "You don't have to be a fat cat to enjoy The Suite Life." Garfield becomes a symbol of luxury living a literal and figurative "fat cat" - featured as a cartoon figure in the midst of an otherwise realistic ad. The punned aspirational lifestyle, "The Suite Life," reinforces the tone of verbal play. While the placement of a cartoon animal in a realistic human environment is jarring, it does tend a distinctive dimension of concreteness and rememberability. The total of juxtaposed odd elements seems effective as a result of clearly spelling out the drama to the perceiver.

Operationalization of "bizarreness" resembles that of triteness: peer judgments can be used to rank symbol/service on a continuum. Actual ad campaigns probably will have to be used, since what is being ranked is the match between both parts of the analogy, not the symbol alone, as in Proposition 3. Researchers can select ads which seem bizarre to them, on the basis of subjective judgment and trade press commentary: for example, Crazy Eddie, Calvin Klein's "Obsession" perfume, Georges Marciano for "Guess?" jeans. Subjects can be asked to judge the nature, degree, and quality of oddness. Additionally, studies of the involvement level of consumers with different executions of services ads (see Rossiter and Percy 1987) would also be useful to measure he amount of effort a consumer is willing to expend on message interpretation. Measures of brand recall, finally, could be adapted to test changes in the service/advertisement involvement level the consumer experiences as a result of bizarre vs. ordinary symbols.

Proposition 5: Effective allegorical usage relates to the socio-cultural context of services advertising.

Advertising in general is culture-bound, since messages must use symbols which are understood and accepted by the target audience (Pollay 1986). Because allegory requires humanization of abstract qualities, the process is quite culturally determined: each culture assigns traits deemed appropriate for specific humans, categorized by age, sex, family position, social status, and so forth. Relativistic differences can affect representations of human abstractions as personas for services to a greater degree than for goods, because consumers experience closer human relationships and greater intimacy with providers, often viewing them as emblematic of the total service product. The advertising decision to personify a service by creating a human representative is bound by cultural constraints operative in the consumer's temporal and spatial context. Salient person-identities such as sex (Stern 1987), age (Belk 1986), race, class status, and so forth need to be chosen for the fictional persona; the demographic traits must be acceptable in the socio-cultural environment.

The allegorical representation, further, has to function effectively both within the context of the cultural coding (see Durgee 1986b) that demarcates the conflicting forces within any system, as well as within the confines of the advertisement itself. For this reason, sensitivity to prevailing cultural values is necessary: when a service consumer "meets" an allegorical persona in action in an ad, the consumer is meeting the service itself, and if the figure is culturally inappropriate, the consumer may make unwanted negative associations of product/provider. The presentation of an old black female mammy as an allegorical figure representing caretaking for a hotel chain would be considered offensive to most Americans. Yet, interestingly, just such a figure is used in goods advertising: Quaker Oats' Aunt Jemima!

Measuring the effectiveness of different representations of the humanized trait involves an assessment of current cultural values. This suggests a multi-step process: first, research analysis of the literature on prevalent cultural stereotypes - beautiful women, for example - should take place. Next, the stereotypical typologies will probably need updating by content analysis of cultural artifacts such as media performances and works of art to generate accurate conceptualizations of appropriate personifications. Last, ethnomethodological field research will be valuable to enhance knowledge of "folk" archetypes on the grassroots level. Measures of the advertising effectiveness of allegorical usage in context, dependant on careful evaluation of the context, can then be studied n terms of the persona's contribution to brand awareness, recognition, and recall. Knowledge of acceptable cultural parameters as well as their real-life translation would enable the advertiser to create the mesh between allegorical usage and cultural values appropriate for global advertising, especially important in today's multinational services marketing environment.


The examination of figurative language in services advertising has only begun, and requires further research to analyze the best means for producing desired effects on consumers. Creation of advertising messages bears strong resemblance to other literary endeavors, and services advertising in particular can benefit from greater understanding of poetic and literary convention. Services' special need for dramatizing the intangible offering lends importance to the study of the nature, uses, and fads and fashions of imaginative language. In services, "what you see is NOT exactly what you get," which forces figurative language to perform more difficult tasks in appealing to the consumer. Poetic theory represents a rich territory which advertising creators can mine for effective and exciting imagistic language uses.


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Barbara B. Stern, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15 | 1988

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