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Metaphoric Representation and Aesthetic in Advertising

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Fatma Nazlı Köksal

Submitted: October 3rd, 2021Reviewed: October 12th, 2021Published: April 6th, 2022

DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.101202

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The function of the visual representation in advertising communication is the fact the image that was instrumentalized for a purpose can be effective with the right wording. In visual representation, which takes place in two stages, form and content, content needs form. Designing everything there is to be conveyed within a certain meaning system creates the language of visual representation. As for the form, it is inevitable to resort to an esthetic language. In this regard, the form and content can be regarded as two basic factors that create the metaphorical meaning in advertisements. When it comes to the metaphorical expression in advertisements, one can say that examining semantical aspects will not be enough, as it is also necessary to take linguistic aesthetic of form into account. In this regard, the purpose of the current study is to examine the visual representations of advertisements that feature metaphors using a dualistic approach, from form and content aspects. The examination is going to be carried out on the television commercial inspired by Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and the layers of the metaphorical expressions used in the commercial will be revealed.


  • visual metaphor
  • aesthetic
  • advertising
  • representation
  • image

1. Introduction

A metaphor is a linguistic tool that transfers the qualities of one object to another. Metaphors can appear not only in language but also in static and motion pictures, sounds, music, gestures, and even in touch and smell [1, 2]. Conceptual metaphors help us understand complicated and abstract concepts in simpler terms [1, 3]. This process involves the matching between two impact areas in our minds. Individuals can categorize the phenomena that they can see, hear, feel, taste, and smell more simply in contrast to these. In this regard, the mind systematically concretizes the abstract to make sense of abstract concepts. The idea of conceptual metaphors was first discovered by Lakoff and Johnson and mainly mentioned in their work ‘Metaphors We Live By’ as follows:

“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. (…) In most of the little things we do every day, we simply think and act more or less automatically along certain lines. Just what these lines are is by no means obvious. One way to find out is by looking at language. Since communication is based on the same conceptual system that we use in thinking and acting, language is an important source of evidence for what that system is like” ([1], p. 124).

According to Lakoff and Johnson [1], metaphor is when we understand one conceptual domain from the perspective of another conceptual domain. Metaphors are not only poetical expressions that have no connection with meaning. These are “general matching in conceptual domains” [2]. This matching has a common structure: a source impact domain, a target impact domain, and the relationship between the source and the target.

The transformation of a visual image—particularly of a metaphor in its core—into a visual element of an advertisement turns the image into a representation. This is the stage at which the metaphorical aspect of the visual argument of the advertisement is constructed. Advertisers tend to use metaphors when conveying their messages to convince people. For instance, Rossiteri and Percy define advertisement as “informing customers about products and services and convincing them to buy those” ([4], p. 3). Similarly, Pateman points out that “the purpose of an advertisement is obviously to sell products” and adds:

“It can be argued that it is only because of the genre assignment that we pick out certain formal properties as the relevant properties which then confirm or disconfirm our initial genre assignment. …The relevant ‘formal’ properties of texts and images used in advertisements can only be specified on the basis of the recognition that they are being produced in advertisements” ([5], p. 190).

Advertising takes place in two stages as a design process: content and form. Content also needs form. When it comes to the form, it is inevitable for the advertiser to resort to an esthete language. Considering something to be aesthetic depends on the formal properties it possesses. Aesthetic, as a notion of beauty, also encompasses forms of description that nourish human memory. The semiotics itself is the process of designing whatever is to be transmitted in the advertising within a meaning system. At this point, it can be stated that form and content are two constituents that expand to the use of the semiotic scope of visual images in advertising. For a visual image to transform into the semantic backbone of advertising, it must be built over a content-wise context. The image that is used finds its metaphorical meaning in the language of advertising. In addition to this, it can also be stated that the language developed by the advertising designer from the semiotic fiction of the ad speeds the process of subjective association. When the meaning and association are in relation with the content of the visual image, the function of visual argumentation is positioned at the association level, and the instrumentalized image becomes the rationality of the advertiser.

Because semiotics has a theoretical definition equipped with scientific extensions, it requires scientific evaluation. However, when it comes to incorporating the formal aesthetic in question, advertising requires more of a philosophical language and analysis. In this instance, visual argumentation in advertising is inevitably dualistic; semiotic and aesthetics, that is, science and philosophy. When it comes to visual argumentation in advertising communication, rather than perceiving it as a situation that can be explained solely through semiotics, if we consider that emotions and intuitions are also reflected in the advertising as a reality of duality within the scope of aesthetic, it will be reasonable to assume that the same duality holds here.

Beyond being a visual language aimed at persuasion, advertising communication bears a cultural context that possesses various categories within itself. This is where we encounter visual culture and the visual image memory that composes it. The content of the image utilized as a semiotic instrument and its function in the aesthetic context may necessitate its inclusion in a cultural structure. Because there is an absolute purpose (intentio) and objective (telos) in advertising. No intention or purpose is circulated without generating its own codes. The meaning built for the advertising should be evaluated from a visual cultural perspective. While any image used in advertising, a layered form of communication, is a literal sign, it is also a connotative symbolic signifier. When an image is instrumentalized as a message in advertising, it transforms into an argument not only physically, but also conceptually. At this point, the advertiser circulates the image both formally and contextually as a representative visual presentation at the same time. In line with this objective, in the current study, visual argumentation in advertisements containing metaphorical actions will be discussed and examined through a dualistic structure, aesthetically and semantically.


2. Visual metaphor and advertising

Advertising, one of the application areas of communication design, is a way of communication that aims to attract people’s attention to a product, service, or organization and change their views and attitudes about it in the desired direction. In today’s communication society, it is possible to state that advertisements have evolved into an indicator system. Advertising, which can also be considered a process of creating meaning, is a process in which symbolic changes are experienced at any time, changing according to culture, context, and consumer experiences, and symbols reproduce themselves by including social and cultural codes ([6], pp. 7–8). The meaning of the advertisement is rebuilt during the reproduction process by replacing another ‘thing’ for the person, object, image, or symbol in the advertisement, and it, of course, obtains representational force. The representation in question is usually created with an image taken from outside the advertising world ([7], pp. 23–24). This image, according to Berger, is “a reproduced or recreated view” ([8], pp. 7–10). Therefore, instead of transmitting messages directly with signs, communication is provided with sensory-intensive tools such as visualization. It is possible to say that the most widely used of these tools are metaphors.

When compared to other contemporary forms of human communication, advertising is notable for its frequent use of the imaginative expression to persuade. Studies reveal that the emphasis on images rather than words has progressively increased in advertisements over the last century [9, 10, 11, 12]. A metaphor is a linguistic tool that transfers the attributes of one object to another. Lakoff and Johnson note that “the essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another” ([1], p. 5). Although a metaphor can be conventionally described as a figurative language, it is more than an “artful deviation” in language, as it is primarily understood in its rhetorical context. It is the foundation of human thought, metaphor as it is first understood in the context of rhetoric, is more than an “artful deviation” in language. Metaphor is the foundation of human thought [1, 2]. Rather than simply summarizing the similarities between two objects, metaphors highlight the difficulty of thinking about a specific object by conceptualizing another object. Metaphors are about combining numerous concepts into a single form, and our minds tend to need a new association or a new similarity beyond the already existing similarities or associations when such a form is formed [1].

Visual images used in advertisements may show similarities in terms of form and content. It is possible to make meaning based on the object in two physically similar images. When it comes to the independence of two images from their formal resemblance, however, the relational system that works for one image may not work for another. According to Phillips and McQuarrie, people assume that similar things also share deeper characteristics. Similarity figures enable advertisers to use these assumptions for persuasive purposes ([11], p. 119). According to the authors, the use of metaphors in advertisements causes the consumer to evaluate an advertisement more cognitively. Further, advertisements using metaphors are more liked by consumers, and metaphorical figures in the advertisement are the forms of communication that are more likely to be remembered at the following exposure to the advertisement. It is assumed that metaphors offer many possibilities to advertisers and expand the limits of creativity. Advertisements take influencing values and characteristics from certain relatively structured areas of people’s experience and transfer them to the product being advertised ([13], p. 69).

Figurative forms of communication are often used to aid in the formation of mental associations in the direction implied by advertising messages. Metaphor is one of those styles, as it seems. Images used in metaphorical communication give rise to implicit patterns of meaning, and as a result, perceivers need to generate mental associations and semantic associations to reconstruct the intended messages appropriately. With visual argumentation and conceptual metaphor, which can be described as tacit expression, the audience is likely to engage and detail the cognitive perception process while receiving the message, which is also a process that increases the persuasion skill of the advertisement. Sopory and Dillard refer to metaphor as a rhetorical form of expression as cognitive, emotional, and motivational processes. For example, mobilization of cognitive process, positive attitude towards the advertisement, increased source credibility [14]. Cognitive, emotional, and motivational processes are three broad categories of explanations offered to explain the relative effectiveness of figurative rhetoric compared to actual arguments. Cognitive explanations include the superior organization of information, the elaboration of thoughts, and the mobilization of cognitive resources. Message using metaphors helps receivers structure and organize their message information better than actual language [15]. This is because metaphors are built on the relational structure between two concepts (A is B) and can evoke a more sophisticated set of associations in people’s semantic memory [16]. Metaphorical messages can influence audiences through emotional processes such as a positive attitude towards advertising and/or motivational processes such as increased source credibility. Regarding emotional processes, metaphors can result in greater persuasion mediated by a positive attitude towards the advertisement. Research on metaphors suggests that metaphorical messages can positively affect the message, such as getting pleasure due to tension and relaxation processes [17]. The motivational explanation for the effects of the metaphor includes the message recipients’ perception of source credibility. Communicators using metaphors can be considered more reliable because they are considered to be highly creative [17, 18]. Perceptions of communicator credibility lead to greater acceptance of the message argument. In this way, metaphors can lead to greater persuasion mediated by message recipients’ positive evaluations of the message source.

Charles Forceville attempts to review previous metaphor literature, hoping to develop a theory of visual metaphor in advertising, but he notes that much of the literature on metaphor is primarily verbal metaphors [19]. Forceville draws on the cognitive perspective from Black’s interaction theory of metaphor and goes to what he calls a pictorial theory of metaphor in advertising. Metaphor takes place first and foremost at the cognitive level and can manifest itself at the pictorial level as well as the verbal level, and possibly in other ways. Forceville defined visual metaphors as follows by conducting an advertisement content analysis to find four different types of pictorial metaphors in advertising: (i) pictorial metaphors with the pictorially present term, (ii) pictorial metaphors with the two pictorially available terms, (iii) pictorial metaphors, and (iv) verbal-pictorial metaphors ([19], pp. 108–164). For example, Forceville [13] stated that cognitive levels emerge as constructs that shape metaphorical perception, and then this perception leads to conceptualizations for both verbal and visual representations. Thus, a visual metaphor can create a conceptual comparison and similarity between two things on a semantic level, even though the two are entirely different. The semantics of visual metaphors are derived from the perception of the audience. Gkiouzepas and Hogg [20] argue that conceptual similarity is related to the semantic relationship between metaphorical objects in the audience’s minds. Therefore, while images tell their stories indirectly, they have to rely on the interpretations of individuals. The requirements of reasoning and perception are based on this reason.

The function of the content of the visual image depends on how much the thematic structure is related to the content of the advertisement. This is related to what the image is representing. An advertiser creates the language of the advertisement in a way that triggers subjective associations of the recipients, that is why aesthetic looked out for.


3. Aesthetic as visual metaphor

Plastic products classified as ‘beautiful’ by art are reciprocated over the idea of beauty. It is aesthetic that deals with this field. Considering something to be aesthetic depends on the formal properties it possesses. Aesthetics includes subjective description forms nourishing the beautiful notion and the human memory. There is therefore a need for a more philosophical language and analysis based on further interpretation of the evaluation of aesthetics data. In aesthetic experience, the reality of the object has become a form of reality, and the only point of interest here is the form that makes the design-related existence of the object possible ([21], p. 73).

The image entering circulation as a metaphor on an advertisement plane brings aesthetic into the agenda as a modality. The designer’s putting the image into circulation as an aesthetic image can be considered as his/her definitely taking the imagination of the onlooker into account as a level of sensation. Kant’s aesthetics names the realization of a comprehensive function by imagination through synthesizing sensation and knowledge as apprehensio. Aesthetic enjoyment is achieved with its determination by a design without the mediation of concepts in the processing of imagination and understanding ability within free and independent intentionality and in compliance with an intention. In this process, imagination sets the understanding ability in motion also for its own freedom, and the understanding ability introduces imagination into an orderly game independently from concepts. As can be understood, another ability that has a distinctive role in aesthetic experience is imagination ([21], p. 32). The function of visual representation is its ability to be effective with the correct selection of design which is instrumentalized for an intention; if an image has not been designed well for an intention and is weak at the visual representation level, it will certainly not create an impact on the individual who perceives it. Here, we can argue that the image that has a functional value has been transformed into a component of visual representation ability. At the center of visual representation is a meaning-based visual linguistic ability. Hence, resorting to a reading performance with a subjective approach makes the value of the image on the aesthetic plane deficient. Therefore, representation and aesthetic, that is, intention and modality, should fulfil what is required by an analytical perspective. In this regard, the Karaca Fine Pearl advertisement inspired by Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring will be analyzed. Thereby, both the representation capacity of an art piece for advertisement and the metaphorical structure of the advertisement will be revealed.


4. An analysis of Karaca’s “Fine Pearl”

Vermeer’s most known work of art, Girl with a Pearl Earring, is regarded as the Mona Lisa of Netherlands, which emphasizes the importance of this painting. Girl with a Pearl Earring is one of the character representations that came to life on the canvas, reflected from the imagination of the artist. The painting features a girl with slightly open and moist lips, bright eyes, a huge pearl earring, and an ultramarine blue and gold scarf on top of her head. There were numerous claims regarding the identity of the girl in the painting. The majority says that the girl is the servant of Vermeer. It has been claimed that she may have been one of the tourists who came to the Netherlands, as her scarf was not something locals wear daily. There are countless and various assumptions about the painting, but the only thing certain is that it is a painting that was done with an extraordinary technique, of a young white-skinned girl looking over her left shoulder, gazing upon the eyes of the viewer. The girl in the painting turns her head momentarily and catches the eyes of her audience, and that very moment comes to life on a canvas. So much so that Umberto Arte recalls Nietzsche’s words: “Precisely the least thing, the gentlest, lightest, the rustling of a lizard, a breath, a moment, a twinkling of the eye—little makes up the quality of the best happiness.” Arte thinks that this quote defines her momentary look. Girl with a Pearl Earring is the painting of eye contact with the audience and a brief silence [22].

The main theme of Karaca’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” advertisement prepared by Y&R İstanbul in 2016, which was broadcasted on television, is inspired by “Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Johannes Vermeer in 1665, as the name suggests. Although almost 400 years have passed, it can be seen that such works of art have become the main inspiration of advertisements, as in the works of other famous painters. These advertisements can either be in a printed form or a video. In this context, the television commercial chosen in the scope of the study consists of six shots and one scene. It is seen that the temporal and spatial contexts of the period in which the work was created were adhered to, and these aspects were supported by elements such as decor and costume choices. The commercial begins with shots including Girl with a Pearl Earring, proceeds to move onto next shots including the moments Vermeer creates the painting. The commercial continues with the close-up shot of the moment the Girl with a Pearl Earring puts her pearl earring on. The commercial nears the finale with a wide-angle view of the girl. From the moment she puts on the earring, the camera starts getting closer to her. The camera keeps moving to the point where the composition and framing ratios in the original painting are reached, then the moving image freezes and transitions into a single still shot, that is, the original work itself. Afterward, it is zoomed into the pearl earring, transitions into close shots of Fine Pearl series products of the brand Karaca. The commercial ends with one final shot including all of the Fine Pearl series. These shots are accompanied by calm and low-tempo music that includes string and wind instruments, and dominantly piano. The story is narrated, which supports the commercial.

The assumed story about and behind the painting is told by the narrator during the commercial. The pearl earring of the girl gazes upon the audience is used to draw attention to the fact that the Karaca Fine Pearl series is the world’s first and only dinnerware made of real pearls. The semantical setup and visual metaphor in this commercial are made up by the mystery behind the figure and her earring. One other important thing is that the narrator, which is one of the most impactful elements of the commercial, says: “Of all the women Vermeer has painted, she is the only one that no one knows anything about”, emphasizing the meaning of the commercial. The “Pearl” on the original artwork refers to the aesthetic modality of the painting. The “pearl” on the commercial refers to the inspiration behind the visual representation of the commercial. This effectively establishes the metaphorical link between the original work and the commercial, and the fact that the product is named Fine Pearl compliments this representation. Just as the Girl with a Pearl Earring’s earring represents elegance, purity, aesthetic, and prestige, the commercialized product also represents elegance, purity, aesthetic, and prestige.

The way that Girl with a Pearl Earring, which has gone down in art history as one of the classics, is presented, the content and the aesthetic of the commercial makes up the rhetorical value of the commercial made for the Karaca brand. The fact that aesthetic that came to life in Vermeer’s work of art are transferred into the commercial, consolidates the metaphorical power of the art and the impact of cultural knowledge on the advertisement. Besides, when the expressions related to food are historically examined from semiotic, class, and social aspects, it is seen that food is not only an act of eating for the sustainability of one’s existence but also is a part of daily life since it appeals to the palate and eyes of people, is a part of rituals and celebrations. Moreover, it has a metaphorical function as it has emotional and associative aspects. In this context, the fact that the advertiser noticed that both the dinnerware series especially produced by the Karaca brand, and the artwork itself are associated with high culture, and the meaning of the art has been conveyed to the content of the advertisement is undoubtedly a very accurate choice. As we can notice, unlike many of Vermeer’s pictorial contents she is not engaged with a daily chore. Instead, represented in an evanescent moment, she turns her head, meeting the viewer’s gaze with her inviting eyes. This is a pick point of the idea of the advert. Girl with a Pearl Earring has no any upper social status, she is a simple woman that with a precious touch of pearl became an admirable personality with a brave and shiny look as all those modest dining rooms that with a touch of a Karaca Fine Pearl collection become more precious. The message here is that the pearl, that made the artwork famous with its elegance, is going to enrich the dining tables with its elegance.

On the other hand, the visual representation in the commercial and the narration with music that support this representation, naturally lead the audience to selectively perceive things. This is in parallel with the idea that the way images and stimuli are presented can affect our perceptions and thoughts. It is expected from the audience to associate two things that have nothing to do with each other in the commercial. Both visual and auditory messages point out the actual meaning behind what the audience sees. In the case of this commercial, the thing that is being pointed out is actually the brand Karaca itself.


5. Conclusion

As a cultural phenomenon that encourages consumption, advertisements need images to consolidate a meaning cycle reproduced continuously. Assuming that it is necessary to consider the object as a message that has gained its meaning for sublimation or promotion of the meaning in an advertisement, it is a must to develop the imaginary thinking as reasoning ability. This study reveals how the artwork itself and its backstory are represented as visual images and how these images fulfil the function of creating meaning. The artwork can be considered as both an intellectual product and a philosophy text that contains aesthetic tendencies. The creation process of the advertisement is a two-layered design process that consists of the creation of the image/visual (form) and meaning (content). At the same time, the image used is the message. The communication between the image, in which the message is encoded, and the recipients occurs only when the image supports the meaning and the recipients perceive and interpret them.

In this study, the usage of metaphorical setup, which includes artistic actions, with the work of art in advertising communication was examined. Although the work of art was created for form-regarding purposes, the role it plays during the commercial turns it into a visual element. Especially in advertisements, in which the images with an aesthetic value like artworks are instrumentalized, it can be seen that the meaning is set up using many layers. Because the work of art used in the advertisement turns into a representing image both form-wise and content-wise. In other words, while the work of art is fulfilling a communicational function, the content gets added on top of its aesthetic. The artwork, which turns into a sign in the advertisement, becomes a metaphorical message used to affect and convince recipients. Therefore, it is concluded that visual metaphors in advertisements should be examined as two layers, namely, aesthetic and representation.


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Written By

Fatma Nazlı Köksal

Submitted: October 3rd, 2021Reviewed: October 12th, 2021Published: April 6th, 2022