An Introduction to Visual Metaphors: Essay

In today’s digital landscape, visuals are a necessity, not a luxury or an accoutrement. The spread of smartphones and social media has made them an essential part of communication. Visual is the broad term for anything we look at (photographs, illustrations, videos, etc.) used for communication. Visuals are a more effective and efficient means of communication than the written word.  

We are visual learners, and we equate seeing with the truth.  Our brains process visuals 60,000 times faster than text, and “90 percent of information transmitted to the brain is visual” (Walter & Gioglio, 2014). Not surprisingly, we remember 80 percent of what we see compared to 20 percent of what we read and only 10 percent of what we hear1. Compelling images account for 94 percent2 more views than content without images.  

Visuals are a ubiquitous presence in our lives. The challenge facing communication professionals is how to make their message stand out. Visual metaphors offer an opportunity to penetrate clutter and reach an audience. 

Visual Metaphors


A metaphor is a figure of speech where a word or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to imply a resemblance. For example, the internet is the information superhighway. Metaphors are ingrained in how we think and make sense of the world. They’re “pervasive in everyday life, not just language, but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.” (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). Metaphors are commonplace in advertising. Approximately 75 percent3 of print advertisements include at least one metaphor in its headline.

Visual Metaphors

Visual metaphors are visual tropes. They are highly structured images that stimulate viewers to understand one concept in terms of another concept (Zeeshan, 2015). Visual metaphors perform better than verbal metaphors in advertising. “…subjects comprehended the advertiser’s intended meaning more often for visual metaphor ads than for verbal metaphor ads” (Scott & Batra, 2004).  The reason is simple. The inclusion of the visual eases comprehension because viewers don’t need to create mental images. Visual metaphors are more common than you might think. According to the limited research on the subject, slightly more than three out of ten print ads4 contain visual metaphors.

Types of Visual Metaphors

There are three types of visual metaphors: juxtaposition, fusion, and replacement. The three types have different levels of complexity based on the amount of inferences viewers need to make to come to an acceptable conclusion. Juxtaposition is the least complex, fusion is moderately complex, and replacement is considerably complex (van Mulken, van Hooft & Nederstigt, 2014).


Juxtaposition, also called similes, includes two images side-by-side. The visual includes the product (or target) next to what it’s being compared with (or the source).

An example of a juxtaposition visual metaphor for a Volkswagen Passat.

This example from Volkswagen juxtaposes a Volkswagen Passat with the lead Elk. The Volkswagen separates the leader from the herd, so we perceive the Volkswagen with the lead Elk. The association is formed from Gestalt’s principle of proximity. Because the Volkswagen is close to the leader, we group it with the leader. Volkswagen is a leader—it is the lead Elk.

Gravity Anomaly example of a juxtapose visual metaphor

The next example is from Gravity Anomaly, an activewear apparel company. It juxtaposes a pair of shorts in front of a gravestone. On face value, it’s a bizarre message. Why would a brand want its product associated with death? The gravestone is a metaphor for a lifetime guarantee. This line of activewear is so durable it will last a lifetime.

Text Anchors

The Gravity Anomaly advertisement is a prime example of the necessity for textual clues. At the bottom, proceeding the logo is the text, “With its LIFETIME GUARANTEE, you wouldn’t want to be caught dead in anything else.” This practice is called “anchoring,” and it provides advertisers with a lifeline to ensure viewers understand the metaphor and the ad’s message. Almost every visual metaphor includes a text anchor to explain the metaphor’s puzzle if viewers can’t work it out for themselves. The desire for text anchors makes sense. Text anchors are a double-edged sword for advertisers. They are proven to aid in viewer comprehension but decreased consumer pleasure in interpreting the message (Phillips, 2000).

This Heineken example juxtaposes a glass of beer next to a stack of CDs

Let’s look at an example from Heineken next. The advertisement juxtaposes a glass of beer next to a large stack of CDs. This visual has a few drawbacks that lessen its effectiveness. The scale of the glass of beer is off, or it’s a tiny glass. The second problem is having the Heineken label appear in the stack of CDs. The metaphor is too simple. It requires little cognitive effort—or elaboration—to solve. Generally speaking, the more difficult the puzzle, the more enjoyment a viewer attains from finding the solution. Finally, the advertisers included a text anchor.

This advertisement would be better without the label on the stack of CDs or, better yet without the glass of beer—just the “labelled” stack of CDs as a fusion metaphor.


Fusion—also known as hybrid or synthesis—combines the product (target) with what it’s being compared with (source) to form a single visual element (called a gestalt).

This Fusion example is from Syndey Brewery's Glamarama Summer Ale

The above example is an advertisement for Sydney Brewery’s Glamarama Summer Ale. It fuses the ale bottle with a popsicle. For the metaphor, the popsicle equals cold—a cold ale is a perfect complement for a hot summer day.

This fusion example is a Fresh Mug Advertisement

The next fusion example is a Fresh Mug advertisement. It fuses a bale of wheat with a mug complete with beer foam. The metaphor is our beer is so fresh you can taste the wheat.

This fusion example is for McDonald's McFlurry

The next fusion example comes from McDonald’s advertising the McFlurry. The advertisement fuses a man and ice cream, with the ice cream replacing his hair. It’s obvious that he has a McFlurry on the brain. The man’s expression is a further clue that he is thinking of ice cream. He’s staring off in a classic look of contemplation.


The final and most complex type of visual metaphor is replacement. Replacement is when either the product (target) or what it is being compared to (source) is absent. Replacement is also called a contextual metaphor because it relies on context for viewers to find (or infer) meaning.

This example of a replacement visual metaphor is by Mercedes-Benz

This example from Mercedes-Benz uses a chicken to represent a car, and foxes represent danger and the lane markers. If the chicken strays from her lane, she’ll find danger. This visual plays on viewers understanding that foxes are a natural predator for chickens. Using two of the same predators taps the Gestalt principle of similarity, so viewers group them, making them easily understood as lane markers.

This replacement example is for Walkin Fitness Studio

The advertisement above is for Walkin Fitness Studio, an Indian fitness studio. This example uses animals as metaphors for a person. The visual includes silhouettes of an elephant’s rear end, the studio logo, and the front half of a horse. Each silhouette is cut off by a vertical line. The lines are on either side of the logo form a boundary for the logo. The lines and negative space surrounding the logo form the studio. The metaphor is rich: lumber in an elephant, leave a stallion.

Replacement example from Chevrolet, where football replaces a car

Chevrolet provides the example above, where a game of football replaces a car. It’s the context—in this case the lines of the parking space—that allows viewers to infer the action replaces a car.

However, this is another example of how dependent visual metaphors are on text anchors. Without the text mentioning hands free park assist, it would be difficult to apply meaning to the visual. The replacement metaphor is strong (football replacing a car), but the intended meaning is unclear. The football action is also a metaphor for what someone is thinking about when he or she is parking the Chevrolet, and the hands-free park assist allows him or her to think about football instead of parking the car.

Interpreting Visual Metaphors

Visual metaphors aren’t read literally. They require interpretation. Visual metaphors deviate from viewer expectations. It’s the unanticipated deviation (or incongruity) that causes viewers to think figuratively and make inferences about the advertisement’s intended meaning. What viewers do is find the first plausible meaning that seems relevant to the message.

Think of visual metaphors as puzzles—when we see them, we instinctively need to solve them.  In our quest to solve the puzzle, we’re going to be lazy and use as little energy as possible. We’re also going to assume that the amount of effort it takes to solve the puzzle equals the amount of reward we’ll gain from finding the solution.

“Receivers are inclined to expend as little effort as possible to understand the message and at the same time they will try to gain as much effect as possible from the message by processing it. In other words, receivers expect that the more processing costs a message requires, the more effect they will gain” (van Mulken, van Hooft & Nederstigt, 2014).

Viewers trade cognitive effort for information and pleasure—the satisfaction gained from finding the visual’s meaning. This exchange of cognitive effort for information and pleasure is visual metaphors’ value for advertisers. It’s also an inherent risk because the information and pleasure effect is contingent on viewers ascertaining the visual’s intended meaning—solving the puzzle. Without the payoff, visual metaphors can frustrate viewers and can be a brand liability.

In visual metaphor research, when an audience can easily understand an advertisement’s meaning, it’s called strong implicature. Conversely, it’s called weak implicature when an audience has difficulty finding a meaning. Let’s look at a few examples.

Strong Implicature

This example of strong implicature is by Volkswagen

Most of the examples discussed before were strongly implied. This example from Volkswagen has an ostrich in a cheetah suit as a metaphor for a car. It is relying on the audience to know that an ostrich is fast, but a cheetah is faster. The message is our car was fast—the new model is faster.

Weak Implicature

Vidiane, a Brazilian food company, provides an example of a weakly implied visual metaphors.

This visual for Viande, a Brazilian food company, is weakly implied. It is difficult to read without prior knowledge of the company. The text anchor (or caption) translates to “noble cuts of beef.”  The cow represents the beef—that connection is easy to make. It’s the nobility that is difficult to make. The author’s first thought was that cow looks like a piece of furniture?

The advertiser’s intent was the pattern to be likened to the imprint on a high-end fashion accessory. Viewers were expected then to associate high-end fashion with nobility and apply the attributes of nobility to a cut of beef. Our cattle are premium quality, so our cuts of beef are premium quality.

This Boag's Draught advertisement is weakly implied.

This advertisement for Boag’s Draught is also weakly implied. The unexpected deviation is the dog’s head. Why is it small? The text anchor, “These waters just make things better,” doesn’t necessarily answer the question. The stick in the dog’s mouth is the clue. He didn’t submerge his head. The water made him big. The advertisement is relying on the audience to know the cliché bigger is better. Without this knowledge, the image looks bizarre. The message is the water from Tasmania is special, and the beer is special because it is brewed with Tasmanian water.

The Benefits

Visual metaphors have three primary benefits: attention, elaboration, and pleasure. Visual metaphors grab attention because viewers notice their novelty—deviation from expectation—stands out from the clutter, particularly in low involvement viewing conditions (e.g., magazine). Visual metaphors provoke elaboration (or cognitive activity), which means viewers make inferences or develop a theory. Pleasure comes from a sense of accomplishment from resolving the visual’s meaning.

“The novelty of metaphors induces perception of error, but when the meaning is understood, the negative tension is relieved. Visual metaphors also elicit pleasure since the initial ambiguity stimulates interest and motivation, and the subsequent resolution is rewarding.” (Jeong, 2008).

Visual metaphors can be seen as counterintuitive for advertisers because “research has shown time and again that consumers are uninterested in, ignore, and actively avoid processing advertising messages” (Phillips, 2003). If viewers avoid “processing” or comprehending advertising messages, why would advertisers want to make it more challenging to process their messages? The answer is simple: people love to solve puzzles.

When we see a visual metaphor, it jars us and grabs our attention because it’s so unexpected. We elaborate on the picture and solve the puzzle and are left with a feeling of satisfaction. We are satisfied because the experience flatters our intelligence (or intellectual capabilities) by showing us that we’re smart enough to solve the puzzle.

Selling Points

Positive Attitude

The secret potential of visual metaphors is the pleasure (or positive feelings) from solving a visual metaphor becomes associated with the product or company. This means that the pleasure the audience gains translates to a positive attitude toward the product and the brand. The boost in a positive attitude is a result of a rapport between the advertisers and the audience established when the audience solves the puzzle. Van Mulken et al. found that advertisements with visual metaphors are appreciated more and better understood than advertisements without visual metaphors (2014).

Increase Recall

Solving a visual metaphor also “enhances memory trace for the ad” (Phillips & McQuarrie, 2004)—simply put, it increases viewer recall of the advertisement.

Visual Metaphors are Persuasive

Including a visual metaphor improves the audience’s perception of the sender’s (or source) credibility. Viewers judge companies that use visual metaphors as more credible because their creativity is evaluated highly. “Metaphors may lead to greater persuasion mediated by message recipients’ positive evaluations of the message source.” (Jeong, 2008).

Jeong (2008) found that advertisements with visual metaphors are more persuasive than advertisements without visual metaphors. The persuasiveness of visual metaphors is linked to the amount of engagement the audience needs to figure out the advertisement’s meaning. “Greater degree of mental participation required by visual argumentation may lead to a product of audiences’ own construction of meaning…and because people are often more willing to adopt a proposition that they have constructed, the implicitness of visual [not clearly expressed] argumentation can be a strong point of visual persuasion.” (Jeong, 2008).

Some research also suggests that persuasiveness is affected by the amount of cognitive effort used making inferences because viewers will have fewer cognitive resources left to counter-argue the advertisement’s claim. The more effort viewers spend speculating on the meaning, the less likely they are to weigh the validity of an advertisement’s claim. This will, of course, increase the likelihood viewers accept an advertisement’s message. We enjoy a compelling visual metaphor so much that we accept its message without looking at it critically.

The Downside

Novelty (or deviation from expectation) is the catalyst for all the benefits of visual metaphors. It’s challenging to come up with a novel concept. What’s worse, the benefits of visual metaphors are dependent on comprehension. Without understanding, visual metaphors are at best useless and at worst destructive. At their root, visual metaphors are a balancing act between complexity and comprehension. If either is out of balance, advertisers have a big problem.

Visuals that are too complex will decrease persuasion and pleasure. “Several studies have suggested that if a message is considered too difficult to solve, demanding too much cognitive processing effort, readers/viewers may opt-out and appreciation decreases.” (van Mulken et al., 2014).

On the other side of the spectrum, visuals that are too easy have minimal benefit.  So, if the product and what it’s compared to are similar, viewers have less appreciation for the advertisement. “Advertisements with metaphors that contain relatively comparable sources and targets were less appreciated than advertisements with metaphors with relatively incomparable sources and targets” (van Mulken et al., 2014).

The same study found conventional metaphors were less appreciated than unconventional metaphors (van Mulken et al., 2014), which underscores how tied the benefits of visual metaphors are to novelty.

Visual metaphors rely heavily on context and are culturally constructed. This means that visual metaphors—especially weakly implied ones—run the risk of being misinterpreted and having unintended or conflicting meanings applied to them.

Let’s look at examples of ineffective visual metaphors.

Ineffective Visuals

This example of a visual metaphor from Toyota associates a push-button start with a beehive.

This example promoting a Toyota with a push-button start is perplexing. Most people associate poking a beehive with pain—being stung—which begs the question, why would a company want its push-button start associated with a beehive? One can only hazard that the concept is to challenge viewers to try it because it isn’t painful.

This ad for Karlberg's Mixery Blend attaches an umbilical cord to an alcoholic beverage

This advertisement for Karlsberg’s Mixery Blend is cringeworthy. The error may be attempting to be too literal. Clearly, the advertisers didn’t pay enough attention to the implications of attaching an umbilical cord to an alcoholic beverage. Is it wise to have an alcoholic beverage associated with infants or nursing mothers? Also, this idea could link this beverage to bodily fluids—not appetizing.

This advertisement for Gringo's Tequila raises cultural issues.

The execution of this advertisement for Gringo’s Tequila, a South African Tequila company, is excellent. The concept, however, raises cultural issues. The replacement visual metaphor has a Lucha libre (Mexican wrestling) wrestler’s head in a shot glass replacing tequila. It relies on a common stereotype—a lucha libra wrestler—that can easily be seen as offensive, which will impact the company’s brand. In this case, the company probably doesn’t care if it’s seen as a politically incorrect brand—and maybe its customers don’t care either.  The point is advertisers and designers need to be cognizant of the cultural implications for their visual metaphors.


There is no denying that visual metaphors grab viewer attention—a necessity for any advertising—the question is to what effect? They offer the opportunity to improve consumers’ attitudes toward a product and brand. Visual metaphors are more persuasive, more appreciated, and better understood than advertisements without visual metaphors.

Visual metaphors are a balance between complexity and comprehension. To viewers, visual metaphors are a puzzle to solve and the greater the challenge, the greater the reward for solving the puzzle. Advertisers need to find the elusive middle ground between too complex and frustrating viewers or too simple and boring them. If viewers can’t resolve a visual metaphor, it hurts appreciation for the product and brand. Text anchors (included text) ensure viewers understand a message but at the expense of spoiling the fun of solving the puzzle. Further, Jeong 2008 found that visual metaphors without text anchors were more persuasive and concluded that “supplementary verbal propositions may not be necessary.”

Moderately complex fusion metaphors have the most potential for advertisers and communicators. “The results from our study demonstrate that visual metaphors of moderate complexity are indeed most effective. Fusions turn out to be appreciated most, whereas replacements, the most complex type of metaphors, are least appreciated.” (van Mulken et al., 2014).

Visual metaphors are a gamble and not for the risk averse. However, if advertisers are willing to roll the dice, visual metaphors present a unique opportunity to penetrate through the clutter and make a rewarding connection with an audience.


  1. Wyzowl infographic
  2. Power of Visual Storytelling by Ekaterina Walter and Jessica Gioglio.
  3. Kim, Baek, & Choi, 2012 reported that approximately 75% print advertisements included at least one metaphor in their headline.
  4. Studies on the prevalence of visual metaphors are rare. Kaplan (1992) looked 464 prints advertisements for automobiles and alcoholic beverages and found that 31% used visual metaphors.


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