Visual rhetorical figures are not so common in advertising; good examples are hard to find. They are used infrequently probably because they require more elaboration by consumers-viewers to interpret the implicit meaning embedded in a visual rhetorical representation. Nevertheless, considering the increasing use of images in many spheres of life, including in marketing contexts, and the growing reliance on visual language to deliver messages, we could expect to see clever and creative visual figures more frequently in advertising and in other forms of promotional features.
A rhetorical figure is an artful form of expression that deviates in some way from a norm (e.g., rhyme, excessive repetition of an item). A metaphor can be especially interesting and intriguing because it creates an unexpected connection between objects by a means of analogy. Yet a metaphor, and a visual metaphor more so, presents a challenge to decode or extract the intended meaning — how the seemingly unrelated object stands for the target object (a product or brand), or what the former is meant to tell about the latter. Rhetorical figures in text are quite familiar, but visual rhetorical figures are not as common. They often require more sophistication and ingenuity in creating them as well as in interpreting them, hence the increased risk that consumers may not get the idea right. The true sophistication, however, would be in creating a visual metaphor that is intriguing yet simple enough for viewers to resolve successfully, thus also giving consumers a pleasure in looking at the artful ad and “thinking into it” (cf. Philips, 1997).
For example, one of the ads designed by McQuarrie and Mick (1999) in their research on visual rhetorical figures in advertising is for a motion sickness remedy: the image of a metaphor-ad puts a pack of Paramol tablets [target visual element] in place of a seatbelt buckle (in a control ad copy the pack is just lying on a car seat). Ad versions with a visual rhetorical figure were perceived as more artful and clever, and rated as requiring more elaboration. However, McQuarrie and Mick note that elaboration does not equal persuasiveness. The challenge to comprehend the ad should not be too difficult so as to give the consumer viewing the ad a sense of accomplishment, not frustration.
A nice example of a visual metaphor captivated my attention in a front window display of a pharmacy in Zurich several months ago (September 2018). The promotional feature shown in the photo image to the right reasonably implies that Flector EP Tissugel acts like a fire extinguisher to bring down one’s acute ‘burning’ pain. The title says: ‘In pain and inflammation’, and below stands an actual fire extinguisher container on a shelf. The sub-title claims that Flector fights pain and inflammation in local symptomatic knee osteoarthritis.
Yet even non-German speakers as myself can grasp the likely relation between a fire extinguisher container and the Flector medication packs juxtaposed on both sides below (additional details were later checked to verify the meaning and relevance of the rhetorical figure).
- Flector EP Tissugel is a type of self-adhesive plasters for relieving acute pain and combatting inflammation (the product also appears as Patch). Flector is a brand of IBSA Institut Biochemique, also known as IBSA Group, a multinational pharmaceutical with headquarters situated in Lugano, Switzerland. Pain and Inflammation is one of IBSA’s therapeutic areas of specialisation.
The feature is interesting also since it is not a typical ad poster — placing an actual physical container and product packs in the display gives it a third dimension of volume and makes the promotional feature more real and salient. The graphic aesthetics are perhaps not very impressive but the promotional feature is intriguing and straightforward, and therefore also has a better chance of being persuasive.
Visual Rhetoric in Advertising: Text-Interpretive, Experimental, and Reader Response Analyses; Edward F. McQuarrie and David Glenn Mick, 1999; Journal of Consumer Research, 26 (June), pp. 37-54
Thinking Into It: Consumer Interpretation of Complex Advertising Images; Barbara J. Philips, 1997; Journal of Advertising, 26 (2), pp. 77-87