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Metaphor and Metonymy

There are other concepts that play an important role in semiotic theory. One of the most important of these involves two figures of speech— metaphor and metonymy. Metaphor communicates by analogy and metonymy communicates by association. “My love is a red rose” is a metaphor. There is a weaker form of metaphor that uses “like” or “as” known as a simile. “My love is like a red rose” is a simile. Metonymy communicates by association. As we grow up, we learn, for example, that people who live in huge mansions are wealthy and so we associate mansions with wealth. There is also a weaker form of metonymy called synecdoche, in which a part stands for the whole. Thus, the White House stands for the presidency and the executive branch of the American government.

We must recognize that metaphor and metonymy are fundamental to our thinking processes and play an important role in the way we function in the world. We use metaphors constantly during our conversations because they are a very useful means of communicating information. As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson explain, in Metaphors We Live By:

Metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphoric in nature. The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. They also govern our everyday functioning, down to the most mundane details. Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities. If we are right in suggesting that our conceptual system is largely metaphorical, then the way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor. (Lakoff and Johnson 1980: 3)

Metaphors play an important role in the communication process and the Lakoff and Johnson book is full of examples of the way metaphors inform our thinking and our speaking.

We can see the difference between these two important forms of communication in the chart below:


Strong Analogy

"My love is a rose”


Weak analogy

“My love is like a rose”


Strong association

Rolls Royce = great wealth


Weak association

The Pentagon = the USA Military

There is an ad for Fidji perfume that shows a naked woman kneeling on the sand at a beach. She is holding a huge bottle of Fidji. The textual material in the ad, written in French, reads (when translated into English) as follows: “Woman is an island. Fidji is her perfume. Guy Laroche, Paris.” This advertisement makes us of metaphor and a powerful image to convey its message. When we read this ad and see the naked woman on the beach, we are left asking ourselves, “What does it mean to say that a woman is an island?” That is a much stronger statement than saying “woman is like an island.” If this advertisement captures our attention, that is an important step in the consumer narrative, which begins with capturing someone’s attention and eventually selling them a product or service.

Gerald Zaltman, a professor of marketing at the Harvard Business School, discusses the way marketers use metaphors to discover what motivates people. He writes (2003: 76):

Researchers from various disciplines have developed numerous devices for mining the unconscious and using those revelations to create real value for consumers. One particularly intriguing device involves metaphors. By inviting consumers to use metaphors as they talk about a product or service, researchers bring consumers’ unconscious thoughts and feelings to a level or awareness where both parties can explore them more openly together.... Because metaphors can reveal cognitive processes beyond those shown in more literal language, they can also surface important thoughts that literal language may underrepresent or miss completely.

Several pages later Zaltman adds to this discussion of the role on metaphors in calling forth unconscious thoughts and feelings to people (2003: 78):

By inviting consumers to use metaphors as they talk about a product or service, researchers bring consumers’ unconscious thoughts and feelings to a level of awareness where both parties can explore them more openly together.... Metaphors direct consumers’ attention, influence their perceptions, enable them to make sense of what they encounter, and influence their decisions and actions.

Thus, by examining metaphors that people use in their everyday conversations, or are asked to use by researchers, we can obtain valuable information about the values and beliefs they hold. Most people are unaware of these values and don’t recognize the role they play in their lives. That is because, Zaltman explains (2003: 9):

Ninety percent of thinking takes place in our unconscious minds—that wonderful, if messy, stew of memories, emotions, thoughts, and other cognitive processes we’re not aware of or that we can’t articulate.

Metaphors also have logical implications that can guide our thinking and behavior. For example, there was a song popular many years ago called “It’s All in the Game,” which asserted that love is a game or like a game. If you believe this, then your beliefs about love are shaped by ideas you have related to games: there are winners and losers, people cheat at games, people play games until they are bored with them, and so on.

What we learn, then, is that metaphoric and metonymic thinking plays an important role in people’s thinking and market researchers can use these literary devices to gain important insights into the thinking of members their target audiences.

Roland Barthes

There are many other important semioticians who made major contributions to semiotic theory, such as Yuri Lotman, father of the Tartu school of semiotics and Umberto Eco, the brilliant Italian semiotician and, in recent years, a novelist. One of the most important semioticians in the twentieth century was the French scholar, Roland Barthes, author of a classic study of applied semiotics, Mythologies, and other works on semiotics and literary theory. In his preface to the 1970 edition of Mythologies, Barthes writes (1972: 9):

I had just read Saussure and as a result acquired the conviction that by treating “collective representations” as sign systems, one might hope to go further than the pious show of unmasking them and account in detail for the mystification which transforms petit-bourgeois culture into a universal nature.

We can regard Barthes’ Mythologies as not only a semiotic analysis of French culture but also as an example of an analysis of marketing in France.

Thus, for example, he discusses the meaning of soap powders and detergents to people in France—a meaning of which they may not be aware (1972: 36-37):

Chlorinated fluids, for instance, have always been experienced as a sort of liquid fire, the action of which must be carefully estimated, otherwise the object itself would be affected, “burnt”.... This type of product rests on the idea of a violent, abrasive modification of matter... the product “kills” the dirt. Powders, on the contrary, are separating agents: their ideal role is to liberate the object from its circumstantial imperfection: dirt is “forced out” and no longer killed. in the Omo imagery, dirt is a diminutive enemy, stunted and black, which takes to its heels from the fine immaculate linen at the sole threat of a judgment of Omo.... To say that Omo cleans in depth... is to assume that linen is deep, which no one had previously thought, and this unquestionably results in exalting it.

If you know what soaps and detergents “mean” to people, you can develop an advertising campaign that will be more effective than one which does not recognize their meanings—even if the members of the target audience are not aware of these meanings at the conscious level.

This passage also suggests the utility of using other modes of analysis— in this case psychoanalytic theory—along with semiotics in analyzing texts. We can also add sociology, which generates sociosemiotics, and Marxist theories which generate an ideological or Marxist semiotics along with other kinds of semiotics—all of interest to marketers.

Maya Pines offers an overview of semiotics, which helps explain its usefulness to marketers and advertisers. She writes (1982: G1):

Everything we do sends messages about us in a variety of codes, semiologists contend. We are also on the receiving end of innumerable messages encoded in music, gestures, foods, rituals, books, movies or advertisements. Yet we seldom realize that we have received such messages and would have trouble explaining the rules under which they operate.

It is the task of semiotics to investigate these messages and explain how they achieve their ends. Everything we buy can be seen as a signifier and what these things signify, their signifieds, involve our sense of ourselves, our identities, our socioeconomic status, our gender, the taste cultures to which we belong, and many other things.

Odile Solomon’s article, “Semiotics and Marketing: New Directions in Industrial Applications” (which appeared in a special edition on semiotics in the International Journal of Research in Marketing, vol. 4, no. 3,201-215), offers us an overview of the role of semiotics in marketing:

The semiotician who makes his living as a consultant in publicity, marketing or communication... may be called on to study extremely varied matters. The object of analysis may be a logotype, packaging, an advertisement, a poster, a complete product advertising campaign or the entire body of a corporate communication campaign; it may be the semiological message of a television commercial or that of an entire radio or T.V. programme; it may be a designer object (such as jewelry, clothing, or cars).... In short, a consultant semiotician working regularly with businesses and agencies in the domain of information, marketing communication and publicity, is obliged to apply his discipline to every field of strategic operational, cultural or social marketing. This includes everything from market research, through product design and corporate brand product advertising to media planning.

What this passage points out is that semiotics plays an important role in every aspect of marketing and advertising products and services, and, in some cases, in creating and designing them.

Semiotics is fundamental to marketers because semiotics explains how people make sense of the world and this is central to reaching target audiences and shaping their behavior. One question marketers might ask is whether it is meaning that shapes consumer behavior, which is what marketing semioticians focus their attention upon, or something else, such as drives and urges and passions from our unconscious? To pursue the matter of emotions and passions, we turn to psychoanalytic theories of marketing and the study of the human psyche.

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