Special Session Summary Style and Metaphor in Visual Persuasion


Rajeev Batra (2002) ,"Special Session Summary Style and Metaphor in Visual Persuasion", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 264-266.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 264-266



Rajeev Batra, University of Michigan


Visual elements of persuasion which have the capacity to communicate complex meanings are receiving increased attention in the academic literature (e.g., Scott 1994; Phillips 2000; McQuarrie & Mick 1999, 2001; Scott & Batra 2001, forthcoming). This session contributes to this movement by describing recent research in the area of visual persuasion, with a focus on the specific elements of visual style and visual metaphor. Visual style is the way graphical elements such as illustration and typeface are used; visual style can itself communicate meaning (Scott 1994). Visual metaphor, in an advertising context, suggests meaning as a result of an implied comparison between the advertised product and the image (for examples, see Phillips 2000). While metaphor is not the only type of visual figure (McQuarrie & Mick 1996), it is an important tool used by real-life advertisers that warrants specific scholarly attention.

In two of the presentations, changes in the characteristics of visual style and visual metaphor over time are documented in an effort to inform the theories of today. Also, the response of individual viewers to metaphors is examined, including a contrast between verbal and visual metaphors. The papers not only comment on the particular topic (e.g., visual style as used by a single firm over time) but have strong implications for the study of visual persuasion in general (e.g., arguing that features of visual style such as size and color cannot be effectively studied as discrete elements which have a predictable, timeless effect).



Linda M. Scott, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Investigation of consumer response to visual stimuli in advertising tends to treat visual style as a brickwork of straightforward physical properties. Formal features such as size or color are used as discrete elements, presumed to be variable according to discoverable formulae in ways that will predictably affect response. The predominant mode of investigation is to test the reactionChowever it may be defined or measuredCto stimuli in which formal properties have been isolated and hen varied.

Studies of this sort have been done for nearly forty years without any explicit recognition of the dramatic changes in style that have characterized advertisements over the same period of time, thus implicitly arguing for a timeless notion of consumer response to the stylistic elements of visual communication. In such a view, one must infer, the appearance of a particular typeface or technique would have a consistent impact, regardless of how often or in what context it might appear in the daily discourse of consumer culture. Thus, the reception of the message would not be influenced by processes of interpretation nor would it involve retrieving relevant extra-textual material or contemporary social experiences. Furthermore, one element, such as color, would have effects independent of the co-appearance of other elements, such as lineCthus, the consumer would not need to integrate or synthesize the elements into a meaningful whole. In sumCand importantly for this sessionCthe prevailing model is unable to account for the employment of visual style to communicate complex or abstract constructs, such as metaphor.

The implicit proposition that stylistic elements have such ahistorical, interpretation-free effects is hard to maintain even from a common sense perspective. In the early years of consumer research, for instance, most ads in American magazines were still black and white. An ad in color stood out from this ground of neutral shades. Within ten or twenty years, the balance had shifted. Black-and-white ads were often noticeableCeven jarring in an avant garde wayCagainst the ground of color. By that time, photography had long since become the dominant representational technique. Illustrations, the preferred mode of picturing until at least the 1930s, had once been thought to impart prestige to advertisements, but the improvements in photographic reproduction that occurred at midcentury gave photographs an aura of "modernity" and "realism" that they had not previously had.

Illustration made a notable comeback in the 1960s, partly because of a general fascination with "retro" styling and partly because new illustrative styles appeared that seemed to "capture" the spirit of the times. The drawings of Peter Max and the graphics of the Pushpin Studios, for instance, were distinctively "of their time" and easily distinguishable from the illustrative styles of previous decades. Such imminently recognizable styles, however, can only be identified using a combination of elementsCnot just a particular palette of color, but a unique curve of line and a distinctive manner of shading. Furthermore, the social associations between such styles and the counterculture of the time (made especially salient by rock concert posters) gave the physical properties, when combined, a meaningful, specific voice. Indeed, in a classic 7-Up campaign, the "Uncola" was explicitly linked to the counterculture through the use of Peter Max illustrations. Thus, certain styles of visualization came to be associated with cultural subgroups (the young), with particular practices (drug use), as well as specific political and social attitudes (the peace movement). To the extent that a specific manner of rendering can "stand for" social groups, practices, political positions, and other cultural constructs, that style can be said to be a metaphor for those same ideas: for instance, the "psychedelic" style of picturing and typeface in some sense "stood for" hallucinogenic experience and the groups/practices surrounding the use of mind-altering drugs, thus becoming, as the name implies, a metaphor for the drug culture.

Though the "psychedelic" style of the 1960’s is now thirty years in the past, ads of the early 21st century still make reference to those times and attitudes by using that particular combination of color, line, and shade. Thus, in addition to the metaphorical properties the style once had, it now also refers to a specific period in history. Clearly, however, one must have some understanding of the "meaning" of 60s style to "get" the visual communication intended by this ad.It is a safe bet that many consumers will have such knowledge, not only because postmodern culture keeps many visual styles alive, but because the largest age cohort of the populationCthe Baby BoomersCis well able to remember (and even identify with) the visual attitude of the 60s. One might venture to suggest that many consumer researchers could themselves remember these variations in style, line, technique, and meaning, but their research does not reflect this common knowledge.

Even in the memory of a single demographic cohort, therefore, the manner and use of style has varied radically. If you step back and look at the question from a more distant vantageCmore the view of the historianCthe presumption that visual style can be broken into discrete elements, each with a predictable, timeless effect, becomes completely untenable. Furthermore, it is quite clear when analyzing the practices of advertisers who have been in business over a long period of time that such variations in visual style have been used deliberatelyCeven knowinglyCto affect consumer response through complex, figurative communication. The studies of our own field, therefore, recognize neither the phenomenon of meaningful visual style nor its practical use by actual marketers.

This presentation will explore the case of Campbell’s Soup to demonstrate the knowledgeable use of historical variations in visual style to convey complex meanings to consumers. This particular advertiser has been one of America’s most consistent, heaviest-spending commercial speakersCas well as one of the most visually adroitCover more than one hundred years. Over the history of this major producer of processed foods, advertising visuals appear that clearly employ styles as metaphors for "prestige," "modernity," "motherhood," and even "counterculture." The original research on which the presentation is based makes use of company documents on file at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D. C. and the Campbell’s Soup files of the D’Arcy Collection at the University of Illinois, which is the most extensive collection of print ads in the world. Because of the importance of this topic to the overall understanding of institutional roles in visual discourse, the research was partially funded by the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities.



Barbara J. Phillips, University of Saskachewan

Edward F. McQuarrie, Santa Clara University

This presentation will highlight what we know about current consumer response to visual metaphor and detail how consumer response may have changed over time based on the changing use of visual metaphor in print ads over the last 50 years. Two explanations for this change will be proposed and discussed: one based on recent research findings and one based on a preliminary exploration of a new research topic.

The presentation will start with the definition of visual metaphor and a discussion of our current understanding of consumer response to this rhetorical figure. Visual metaphors in ads compare two images through analogy by suggesting that one object is like another even though they are quite different (Stern 1990; Ward and Gaidis 1990). For example, a shoe ad featuring a foot-shaped cloud floating through the sky confers the benefit of "comfort" on the image of the advertised brand. We will review the previous research that suggests how consumers use cues and cultural competencies to interpret visual metaphor ads (McQuarrie and Mick 1999; Phillips 1997; Scott 199) and how this type of processing benefits the advertiser (Kardes 1988; McQuarrie and Mick 1999; 2001).

Because most of this research focuses on modern-day consumers and their response to visual metaphor ads, little is known about how consumers’ interpretations of and responses to this style of ad has evolved over time. We cannot return to the past to measure the effects of these ads on consumers; however, by examining the use of visual metaphor in ads over time we can draw implications regarding constancy and change in consumer response. The core of this presentation draws on a completed analysis of print ads in three magazines from 1954 to 1999 to show that although visual metaphor is constant in its appearance from the beginning of the period to the end in all three magazines, the way that it is used by advertisers has changed dramatically over time.

In the early part of the sample, most visual metaphor is anchored; that is, words are added to the ad to fix in place the meaning of the visual images (Barthes 1977; Dyer 1982; McCracken 1986; Pollay 1983). Previous research has shown that anchoring increases comprehension of a visual metaphor (Phillips 2000). However, over time, the visual metaphors used in sample ads become less anchored and during the 1980s, ads with no verbal explanation become more common. The presentation will relate the decreasing use of verbal anchoring in visual metaphor ads over time to increasing consumer competence in interpreting visual metaphor. From this perspective, the change in persuasive tactics from 1954 to 1999 points to the growing sophistication of consumers in reading visual images over this period.

Finally, the presentation will examine reasons why advertisers would risk the non-comprehension of their ads by removing anchoring copy from visual metaphors. One explanation from previous research that will be discussed supports a trade-off between comprehension and pleasure. Too much verbal explanation of a visual metaphor reduces the pleasure consumers experience in the ad (Phillips 2000). Another possible reason for the decrease in anchoring has been suggested by researchers exploring the "dark side" of consumer response: unanchored advertising images are perceived to be more believable than words because they can present implicit messages that penetrate consumers’ scepticism (Marchand 1985; McQuarrie and Mick 1999; Messaris 1997; Rossiter and Percy 1983; White 1981). The presentation will present a preliminary exploration of this hypothesis and outline future work to be conducted to test this theory.



Eric D. DeRosia, University of Michigan Business School

Rajeev Batra, University of Michigan Business School

How do viewers respond differently to a metaphor in an advertisement depending on its mode of presentation (i.e., verbal versus visual)? While viewers are motivated to interpret metaphors to resolve incongruity (McQuarrie & Mick 1996, 1999; Phillips 2000), other influences may increase or decrease viewers’ motivation to interpret, such as individual differences between viewers. Need for cognition (NFC; Cacioppo, Petty & Morris 1984) and style of processing (SOP; Heckler, Childers & Houston 1993) are hypothesized to be such moderators.

Individuals who are high in NFC and who encounter a metaphor in their preferred mode of presentation (based on the individual’s SOP) are hypothesized to be highly motivated to interpret the metaphor. Individuals who are high in NFC but who encounter a metaphor in a non-preferred mode of presentation are hypothesized to be nly moderately motivated to interpret the metaphor. Similarly, individuals who are low in NFC but who encounter a metaphor in their preferred mode of presentation will be moderately motivated. Finally, individuals who are low in NFC and who encounter a metaphor in their non-preferred mode of presentation will have low motivation to interpret the metaphor.

Viewers with low motivation will fail to interpret the metaphor and will not derive any meaning from it. Viewers with high motivation to interpret the metaphor will not only interpret it, but will devote sufficient attentional resources to counterargue the metaphor’s meaning (if the meaning is incongruent with existing belief structures). Viewers who have moderate motivation are hypothesized to devote sufficient attentional resources to interpret the metaphor but to devote insufficient attentional resources to subsequently scrutinize and counterargue the meaning of the metaphor.

An empirical test of these hypotheses was reported. A metaphor was designed to communicate a message which was incongruent with the existing beliefs of viewers, and the metaphor was presented in (1) visual and (2) verbal modes. Pretesting established the equivalence of the verbal and visual versions of the metaphor. In the main study, participants viewed either the visual or verbal version of the metaphor, and the participant’s NFC and SOP were measured. Since the metaphor acts to communicate a specific meaning or argument, the dependent variable was the brand belief related to the argument. By using regression analysis, the measured variables were treated as quantitative variables. The results of the analysis reveals a three-way interaction between the independent variables, with the modeled effects following the pattern predicted by the hypotheses.

This research suggests that NFC and SOP combine additively to influence viewers’ motivation to interpret a metaphor presented in print advertising. When such motivation is moderate, metaphors can inhibit counterarguing. When motivation is low, metaphors may not be interpreted at all. Finally, this research suggests that visual and verbal metaphors have predictably different effects, depending on the NFC and the SOP of the viewer.



Rajeev Batra, University of Michigan


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29 | 2002

Share Proceeding

Featured papers

See More


Social Sharing of Negative Emotions in Virtual Travel Communities

Clara Koetz, Rennes School of Business
Anke Piepenbrink, Rennes School of Business

Read More


Parallel practices of visual domination and subversion

Veronika Kadomskaia, Monash University, Australia
Jan Brace-Govan, Monash University, Australia
Angela Gracia B. Cruz, Monash University, Australia

Read More


People Overpredict the Benefit of Using Expensive Items and Appearing Rich in Friend-Making

Xilin Li, University of Chicago, USA
Christopher Hsee, University of Chicago, USA

Read More

Engage with Us

Becoming an Association for Consumer Research member is simple. Membership in ACR is relatively inexpensive, but brings significant benefits to its members.