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The 2019 Cannes Lions Festival, the international festival for creativity has revealed that advertising is no longer restricted to a printed or audiovisual format. Creative persuasion practices have officially moved past the notion of magazines, billboards, or TV commercials, and are engaging with audiences in new ways that are yet to be explored by researchers interested in advertising.

A case in point is ‘aikido marketing’, where the company uses the strengths of its competitor - well, against its competitor. A good example to illustrate this is the Burger King campaign The Whopper Detour. Building on the fact that its competitor McDonalds has a stronger presence in the market, Burger King gave Whopper burgers for $0.01 to anyone who used the Burger King app within a 600-foot radius of a McDonald’s restaurant. The campaign resulted in many people visiting McDonalds to order Burger King Whoppers (which Burger King subsequently filmed for the advertising video). Every McDonalds restaurant served inadvertently as an advertisement for Burger King.

One Aikido expert tumbling another

The ways of selling might have changed, but the persuasive strategies remain untouched. As happens with many successful advertisements, the Burger King example shows a key presence of metaphor at the core of their narratives. Metaphor is particularly suitable for advertising because it connects the product or service promoted with a related, positively-connoted array of ideas. 

Chess pieces in white with one dark pawn in the middle

With the Burger King example, we can see two things: first, we see the whole “detour” is playing out the conventional journey metaphor, where people get a reward at the end of the journey to Burger King - only when the obstacle, McDonalds, is overcome. What is new is the second part of the campaign; the level of interaction with audiences. Not long ago, adverts used to be about us passively witnessing an actor in an advert going through the journey, and we might (or might not) relate to that experience. Now, there is a call for action and it’s us who are going on that journey (literally!). Consumers are now physically enacting this metaphorical scenario and taking an active role in the development of the metaphor, thus blurring the boundaries between the advert and real life, and expanding exponentially the persuasive power of the advert. Making the ‘consumer journey’ more dynamic and relatable with audiences.

The Burger King example shows that there is a gap between 2019 advertising practices, and the research published on metaphor in advertising. Whereas metaphor is still a powerful tool to convey persuasive messages, the ways in which consumers interact with adverts have drastically changed in the past few years. Researchers are still catching up with the ways in which images, senses, sound and music operate in adverts that involve new media, such as Internet fora, viral advertising campaigns, and social networks such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter. This gap also prevents researchers from providing advice to practitioners, who stand to benefit from a metaphor-design approach to their adverts.

The EMMA team: Samantha Ford, Jeannette Littlemore, and Paula Pérez-Sobrino

In order to bridge both worlds, Jeannette Littlemore, Paula Pérez-Sobrino, and Samantha Ford are reflecting on these issues in a new research monograph entitled Unpacking Creativity: the role of figurative communication in advertising that will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2020. The book aims to: (1) advance our knowledge emerging meaning-based and form-based types of creativity (by bringing to the spotlight under-researched tropes in advertising as metonymy, irony, hyperbole, and understatement), and (2) provide empirical evidence for their impact on comprehension, effectiveness, appreciation and arousal of emotion in cross-cultural audiences. 

We hope to contribute to metaphor theory (and to cognitive linguistics more generally) by combining discourse analysis and experimental approaches to the study of the nature and the effectiveness of creative figurative communication in advertising. Likewise, and because of its strong applied focus and data-driven approach, we also aim to have an impact on professionals working in advertising. We aim to raise awareness of subtle linguistic and cultural differences in the ways figurative communication is understood, allowing advertisers, marketers, charities and NGOs to produce advertisements that are targeted more sensitively to the needs of different consumers, thus benefitting communities both locally and internationally.