We use them in almost every sentence we utter, every line we write and every image we create, but do we really understand how metaphors influence us and our audience? And if we did, would we use them differently and to better effect?

That’s what I want to talk about and share what I’ve learned after reading Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Because prior to reading that book, I thought metaphors were just a flowery way of using words. Little did I did realise just how powerful they are and the degree to which they frame our thought, behaviour and feelings.

And that’s why we should pay more attention to how we use them, not just in our marketing, but in our daily lives. We might find we are influencing others in ways we would not want, or indeed, in ways we want but without knowing why.

P.S. There’s a summary of the book here if you’re short on time.

Metaphors are more than words

Metaphors are an essential part of our language, and, life. So what are they, how do we use them and why are they so important? They’re not just a whimsical choice of words, a flowery phrase, or a figure of speech. Metaphors are a reflection of how the brain’s conceptual system works. They are a consequence of how our minds and bodies experience the physical world. They help us understand the world and express our thoughts and feelings about it. Especially abstract thoughts and feelings.

For example

When we say we’re feeling over the moon, it doesn’t mean our body or feelings are literally and physically located out in space somewhere above the moon. It means that the size and intensity of our feeling – in this case, happiness – is equal to the distance from our body to the moon. We are referencing an extra-terrestrial rock to express the size of our feelings; a rock that we know from our own physical experience of seeing it way up there in the night sky is incredibly far away. 

In this case, we are using the distance to the moon as a proxy for size. This is how we give a real-world size to our internal, abstract feelings. And doing that allows us to understand and share how happy we are. It goes deeper than that though. 

It ain’t over ’til the well-proportioned lady sings

Why say OVER? It’s not by chance. We use words like up, over, above and beyond to relay happiness, joy and other good feelings because this is how we feel when – all other things being equal – we are in a physically upright position. 

From birth, we begin a journey of physical development. It starts from being held and being horizontal, to sitting up, crawling, to sofa surfing, to wobbly waddling, to walking, running, dancing and leaping into the air. When we develop those skills, we feel joy because we are gaining mastery over ourselves and gaining greater agency within the world around us. 

As a result of our physical experience of going from horizontal to vertical, we construct the idea that “up is good” because that experience typically resulted in personal agency and happiness. We then apply that concept of up equals good to help us express other experiences in our lives. 

Hey diddle, diddle…

That’s why we’re OVER the moon, and not under it. Over is an upward movement or position, just like our experience of growing. Metaphors are not an arbitrary choice of words. They are born out of our physical experience of the world, and they allow us to understand and communicate our abstract thoughts, feelings and ideas using our physical experience of the world as a foundation and reference point.

One other example: when we say we look UP to someone, we use UP because from birth, we physically look up to our parents, and we – again, all other things being equal – tend to like, love, respect and admire them. UP and ADMIRATION go hand in hand.

So, saying UP is not an accident. It’s a consequence of our biological development. Then, as we age and meet other people, we translate that same concept of looking up to and admiring our parents to other people even if we’re taller than they are. The same can be said of looking DOWN on people.

Metaphors in marketing

With all that in mind if you’re creating any kind of message it’s important to think about which metaphors could help make it quicker and easier to interpret and more influential. Indeed, it might turn out that you decide not to use metaphors – although that would be incredibly hard given their ubiquity – or use them in a counter-intuitive way.

Take a simple sales ad. The copy might say this:

Price crash! 50% off on all red-label items!

You might be thinking that this is not a metaphor. But metaphors aren’t always phrases like “she is a tower of strength” or “it’s raining cats and dogs”.

Let’s look more closely at the precise wording

The price of the products has crashed – a crash is an event. We’ve turned a price – an abstract concept – into a vehicle, a real-life object. The word crash also makes us think of a sudden and dramatic change in the price-vehicle’s trajectory, where it is travelling along quite nicely thank you very much until all of a sudden, boom! It crashes and comes to a grinding halt.

Visualising price as a vehicle and having it crash helps the audience understand the substantial difference between the original price and the new price. But because the entire message is conceptualised as a vehicle crashing, the audience will be hard-pressed not to view it in those terms. They won’t see it as a price drop for example, which would instead turn the price into an object in the sky which is moving in a vertical but downward direction, meaning we wouldn’t see the price as a fast -moving vehicle and suddenly stopping altogether but simply being lower than it was before. There’s still drama, but a drop is not as substantial as a crash.

A key question for marketers is this:

How does using the word “crash” help the audience understand the message as the brand would like it to be understood, and how will that precise wording affect how the audience views the nature and value of that price crash? Maybe crash isn’t the right word. Maybe a crash implies other, undesirable things e.g. that the company is in dire straits and is selling off its stock.

And then, even if we stick with crash, how will that be portrayed in the ad itself? Will we see a price tag zooming along a road and suddenly crashing into something? Is that helping or hindering the message? If we change it to drop, will we see the price fall from the sky?

Metaphor in animation and video

Not surprisingly, this is the level of thinking we apply to our animated explainers and video productions. We make the imagery, motion and sound convey and portray the message in a metaphorical way. Not to the nth degree necessarily, and not always and every time – it depends on what’s relevant.

Here’s an example: at seven seconds, you get the idea that the falling balls are on a journey, and that is apparent for two reasons: the onscreen text mentions how far they’ve got, and the balls are falling down the screen.

Both those things indicate a direction and length of travel, which helps the audience to understand the journey that ideas – abstract thoughts – can take by representing them in physical form, as balls. They also tap into the metaphorical idea that we don’t want those ideas to fall down any further (meaning not be good enough to stand up to scrutiny), or fall by the way side (be forgotten or deliberately left behind). That’s why some of them then bounce back up the screen.

Epilogue

So, when you next create a message, or see one, you might see it in a new light and wonder how your thinking is being framed without you knowing it… What if we stopped saying life is a journey, what if we said it’s a dance instead? What would you then believe? How would you then act? Maybe we’d stop focussing on getting to the end and enjoy the music while it plays.

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