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The secrets of metaphor in communication

An in-depth look at the types of and differences between visual and linguistic metaphors can help formulate more effective advertising and social campaigns.


Metaphors represent colourful or clever ways of expressing ourselves linguistically, yet they can also be employed visually such as in advertising, art and political satire. The EU-funded COGVIM (Why visual metaphors matter: Metaphor theory and the cognitive grounding of visual metaphor) project investigated the differences between visual and linguistic metaphors. It worked on defining how the concept of metaphor can influence recipients of a message, an important consideration in a world where we are constantly bombarded by messages. The project team categorised metaphors in three types of similarity between paired concepts. These were attributional similarity based on the entity-related semantic features shared by the two concepts, relational similarity based on shared contextual structures, and language-based similarity based on shared linguistic contexts. While both linguistic and visual metaphors fit into these three categories, there were some notable differences. Most importantly, COGVIM remarked that visual and linguistic metaphors are based on different types of semantic information that are exploited to cue metaphorical comparisons between two aligned concepts. Overall, the project team found that the attributional similarity in visual metaphors is significantly higher than for linguistic metaphors. It also found that the experience-based relational similarity in visual metaphors is significantly higher than for linguistic metaphors. Conversely, the team found that the language-based similarity is significantly higher for linguistic metaphors than for visual ones. Another important conclusion was that visual metaphors tend to be on average more creative than linguistic metaphors and usually involve more concrete concepts since they are graphically depicted. An example of this is an anti-smoking campaign that shows a cigarette in the shape of a coffin. The project’s results have helped to explain the different similarity patterns under study in a more accurate way. In more academic terms, the findings support multimodal accounts of cognition, where multiple modality-specific semantic representations contribute to shaping our conceptual system. COGVIM’s findings, which have been disseminated through the final project conference and several publications, show that indeed the two modalities of expression – images and words – extend different strategies for exploiting metaphors. This will ultimately be very useful in creating better commercial and social campaigns.


Metaphors, communication, linguistic metaphors, advertising, social campaigns, COGVIM

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