EMMA: About

In a global market place there is an increasing need for companies to develop sophisticated and effective advertising strategies in order to compete and increase market share.

Although this trend has been led by the private sector, it has had a knock-on effect on charities and non-government organisations. To be effective, advertisements must capture attention and be emotionally engaging and persuasive. One way that they can achieve these aims is through the use of verbal and visual metaphor and metonymy.

What is metaphor?


Metaphor is like a bridge; it transfers meaning from one entity or concept to another. In advertising, this transfer of meaning can be useful to inform viewers, or potential customers, about the product advertised (i.e. what it is, what it does, and how well it performs). 

olay_pro_x_by_fd_collateral_d1y95uhTake a look at the OLAY advertisement as an example of metaphor in advertising. The advert contains visual and verbal metaphor through the image of the peach and the textual caption beneath it. The image and caption help inform one another and communicate a message to the viewer about the OLAY Pro-X skin cream. The image and caption both make a comparison between the skin cream (the ‘target’ of the metaphor) and the peach (the ‘source’ of the metaphor), such that the metaphor is THE CUSTOMER’S SKIN AFTER HAVING USED THE CREAM is PEACH SKIN. The metaphor compares the qualities of a peach’s skin (i.e. soft, supple, and voluptuous) to the skin of a customer who uses the OLAY cream. This comparison conveys information about the OLAY cream that emphasises these attributes.

It is important to note that when metaphor is being used, not all qualities or meanings associated with the source are necessarily transferred; only the salient meanings will transfer to the target. The selection of salient meanings is carried out by the viewer, based on their previous experience and knowledge. What salient meanings are communicated and how the viewer understands them can have various effects on their evaluation of the advertisement and product. Testing viewers’ responses to metaphors in advertisements before their release can provide valuable insights into the mindset of the viewer, and help predict the success of the advertisement.

Why metaphors in advertising?

Metaphor is a highly noticeable, persuasive and powerful form of communication for several reasons. First, it provokes mental images which can be used to package and convey a large amount of information in an efficient manner and second, it allows indirect expression.

Third, it is a natural component of thought, and is thus evident beyond language. Intangible entities are often described metaphorically e.g. positive experiences are metaphorically ‘up’, and negative experiences are metaphorically ‘down’. It has been suggested that metaphor is often ‘embodied’ and that it can provide direct access to sensory-motor experiences. In other words, humans experience a ‘gut’ reaction to metaphor not always experienced with more literal forms of communication.

Fourth, due to its embodied nature, metaphor has been shown to be more likely to provoke an emotional response than literal forms of expression, and this may help recipients develop a personal relationship with an advertisement.

Advertisements can contain a single written or visual metaphor, or combine both (described as a ‘multimodal metaphor’). Advertising offers plenty of case studies, evidence and information for the scholarly study of multimodal metaphors. The inner logic of metaphor as a cognitive operation suits the specificities of advertising as a discursive genre. Both involve two discrete entities (in the case of metaphor, the source and the target; in advertising, the product or service being advertised and the entity to which it is being compared in order to create a positive message).

What is metonymy?

icebergMetonymy is particularly useful for advertising as it can package a great deal of information into a small space or into a simple representation; be that a word or an image. 

It can sometimes provide an economical point of access to a broader scenario. In EMMA’s view, this operation triggers an iceberg effect. Any desirable and sufficiently representative feature present in the advertisement can trigger a straightforward and almost effortless activation of a positive image of the promoted product in the consumer’s mind.

Why metonymy in advertising?

Metonymy is particularly useful for advertising as it can package a great deal of information into a small space or into a simple representation; be that a word or an image. 

Domain expansion operations (of the PART-FOR-WHOLE type) are ubiquitous in advertising since they constitute an economical point of access to a broader scenario. In EMMA’s view, this operation triggers an iceberg effect. Any desirable and sufficiently representative feature present in the advertisement can trigger a straightforward and almost effortless activation of a positive image of the promoted product in the consumer’s mind.

Expanding the scope: metaphor-metonymy combinations in multimodal use

Many advertisements contain an interaction of metaphor and metonymy. Metaphor-metonymy combinations play an important role in advertising because they combine the ability of metonymy to supply a vantage point of access with the ability of metaphor to ascribe desirable features from a positively-connoted entity to the product. Sometimes the metaphorical and metonymic components work together to propose a single message, and at other times they work in opposition to create an eye-catching incongruous image that attracts attention from the reader. 

In our work, we have shown that the persuasive power of an advertisement increases as the combination of metaphor and metonymy increases in complexity. 

Before EMMA

Sunrise and silhouetted figuresBefore the start of EMMA, little was known about the depth to which audiences processed metaphor and metonymy when they appeared in multimodal format in advertisements, or how long it took them to do so. 

Speed of processing is important, as advertisements often appear in locations where short viewing periods are natural, e.g. roadside billboards or webpages with banner adverts. Moreover, it was not known whether this multimodal figurative information evoked positive or negative attitudes towards products. Previous work suggested that people may have an affective response to metaphor in advertising, but the direction and type of emotion had not been fully explored in multimodal messages, e.g. whether a complex combination of metaphor and metonymy triggers a stronger emotional response than a single metaphor would, and which combination results in a greater appreciation of the advertisement by the viewer. 

In the development of advertisements it is necessary to consider an international audience, particularly when they are produced for online engagement. Metaphor in one language can result in difficulties for those who use another.

However, the degree to which this occurs in imagery and video advertisements had not been established. The EMMA team thought that it was likely that there would be a degree of cross-cultural variation in the amount of time required to understand the multimodal metaphors and metonyms, the ways in which they are understood, and their appeal.

Moreover, although previous studies had suggested differences between European and Chinese participants in terms of the ways in which they respond to emotions as expressed through metaphor, this line of investigation had never been extended in the field of advertising. More specifically, EMMA involved an empirical investigation into the roles of emotion and linguistic/ cultural background in facilitating these operations. 

The research goals of EMMA

  1. To establish the ways in which the use of multimodal metaphor and metonymy in advertisements affects the speed of comprehension,
  2. To establish the ways in which the use of multimodal metaphor and metonymy in advertisements affects the depth of understanding,
  3. To establish the ways in which the use of multimodal metaphor and metonymy in advertisements affects the appeal of the advertisements, and,
  4. To examine the ways in which the above variables vary according to the linguistic and cultural background of the audience (with a special emphasis on English, Spanish, and Chinese consumers), and to identify the challenges that multi-modal figurative communication presents in cross-cultural communication.

Project methodology

The project adopted approaches and techniques from cognitive linguistics, corpus linguistics, marketing, and cognitive and social psychology. A series of experiments were conducted to determine how the metaphorical and metonymic content of multimodal advertisements is understood by potential consumers and the ways in which these appeal to consumers. These experiments included the use, among others, of the following mixed-methods approach of lab experiments, qualitative inquiry, corpus and statistical analyses: 

Mental chronometry (ePrimemeasures reaction times, which is the duration between viewing a stimulus and eliciting a behavioural response or completing a perceptual-motor task. It is particularly useful in experimental and cognitive psychology, while also being very insightful for marketing, that tests how viewers, or consumers, respond to stimuli, such as advertisements.  

In psychometric psychology reaction times are considered to be an index of speed of processing i.e. how fast the thinker can execute the mental operations needed by the task at hand. In turn, speed of processing is considered an index of processing efficiency. The behavioural response is typically a button press but can also be eye movement, a vocal response, or another observable behaviour. 

Electrodermal activity sensorsElectrodermal activity (EDA) (Affectiva GSR Qsensor) is the property of the human body that causes continuous variation in the skin’s electrical characteristics. The traditional theory of EDA holds that skin resistance varies with the state of sweat glands in the skin. Sweating is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, and skin conductance is an indication of psychological or physiological arousal.  If the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system is highly aroused, then sweat gland activity also increases, which in turn increases skin conductance. This can be a measure of emotional and sympathetic responses. More recent research and additional phenomena suggests this is not a complete answer, and research continues into the source and significance of EDA.

Eye tracking softwareEye tracking (EyeLink) is the process of measuring using an eye tracker device either the point of gaze (where one is looking) or the motion of an eye relative to the head. Eye trackers are used in research on the visual system, in psychology, in psycholinguistics, and marketing as an input device for human computer interaction, and in product design. There are several methods of measuring eye movement. The most popular method uses video images from which the eye position is extracted.

Qualitative interviews helped the project team ascertain how, when and why emotions are induced in advertisements and to determine the type, intensity and duration of experienced emotions in response to advertising and viral advertising, static and dynamic material.

Experiment design and distribution software (ePrime, Qualtrics, Prolific), were used to produce comprehensive and efficient experiments that present participants with advertisements varying in figurative messaging in order to test their effectiveness with different groups of people. Experiments testing advertising campaigns have been conducted in-house, through partner databases, and through online distribution tools (allowing distribution to an international pool of participants). 

Corpus analysis tools (AntConc, SketchEngine, WMatrix) have enabled the researchers to analyse the transcribed spoken responses and written responses of participants in the experiments to stimuli being tested. These corpus analysis tools have allowed the identification of frequent words and meanings used by particular groups of participants (e.g. according to age, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity). These tools have also enabled the comparison between the control and variable groups to understand how differences in figurative messaging (i.e. the use of metaphor and/or metonymy) in advertisements have affect consumer attitudes and behaviour.  

Logo for RStatistical analysis software SPSS (Statistical Package for the Social Sciences) and R (computer programming) have facilitated comprehensive statistical analyses of the data collected from the series of experiments conducted.Logo of SPSS

Qualititative interviews

Originality and impact

A lit lightbulb hovers above an open handEMMA was the first project to explore the role of emotion in figurative language comprehension in authentic data, and to establish whether figurative complexity affects speed of comprehension and appreciation of the message being conveyed.

It provided valuable information for advertising agencies, NGOs and charities on the advantages, or otherwise, of introducing figurative complexity into their campaigns. Innovation in the proposed project stems from several interdisciplinary factors and state of the art research techniques:

  1. This was the first broad-scale empirical study of the effect of multimodal figurative language on the time taken to understand advertisements, the emotions evoked, and the appreciation of advertisements by participants from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds.
  2. The research went beyond traditional approaches to multimodal metaphor by taking into account the dynamic interplay of metaphor and metonymy and their emotional impact.
  3. The project singled out and empirically tested different variables influencing the success of advertising: figurative complexity, the linguistic and cultural background of the reader, and emotional responses may all affect the time and depth of comprehension, as well as the appeal of the product.
  4. The project raised advertisers’ awareness of the workings of conceptual tools, which should lead to a strategic deployment of multimodal figurative language in line with ethical selling plans.
  5. The project was interdisciplinary, taking cognitive linguistic, linguistic, psychophysiological, and marketing approaches to investigating the research gap.

If you would like to know more about EMMA, please contact us.