Persuade with Visual Metaphors


Nice StemsWhile we think of metaphors as mainly word-based, visual metaphors can be a potent selling tool. They can both engage the brain like text metaphors and stimulate the viewer’s senses in a way that words alone may not.

I ran across an ad for Austin-based Elements Laser Spa that includes both a visual metaphor and a play on words. The ad shows a rose with its thorns removed, while its headline text reads, “Nice Stems.” (For international Neuromarketing readers, “stems” is slang for “legs.”)

This ad is brilliant in several ways. First, it produces an “aha!” reward to the viewer’s brain since most readers will understand the cryptic ad only when they look at the small print below. (The print version of this ad has a small box below the illustration that offers a discount on laser hair removal. The long-stemmed rose with the little pile of thorns won’t make sense at first, but upon seeing the text in the discount offer just about every viewer will immediately grasp what’s going on.

For more on the benefits of triggering an “aha!” moment, see Puzzles Boost Brand Recognition and Marketing to the Infovore.

The second clever element is the double meaning of “stems” – like many good headlines, this amusing play on words will grab the viewer’s brain. Words used in unconventional ways have been shown to have that effect – see also Shakespeare Copywriting.

The final element that makes this ad great is that once the viewer has put together the stems/legs play on words, there’s the visual metaphor of the thorns. While most women wouldn’t immediately think of leg hair as a painful hazard, the thorn metaphor suggests that stubbly legs are comparable to a thorny plant. This imagery certainly makes longer-lasting hair removal seem like a better alternative than frequent shaving and the inevitable appearance of scratchy stubble.

Another ad for the same shop uses a cactus metaphor. Here in Texas one actually encounters cacti both in the wild and in landscaping, and if anything it’s an even more sensory metaphor than the rose thorns! That ad lacks the clever wordplay, though.

For a slightly different take on a hairy topic, check out Schick Commercial’s Aha! Moment.

Have you seen any great use of visual metaphors in ads? Leave a comment, and I’ll try to post images.

  1. Jane Bromley says

    Nice one Roger.
    It makes me realise just how carefully I should select the photos I use to reinforce my messages. Thank you.


  2. Mariella Remund says

    Very nice but it makes me reflect how this won’t translate in any other language/culture.
    I live and work in China for a US organization, and commute regularly from China to Europe and to Mexico.
    Visual metaphors are very powerful to illustrate an abstract concept in a foreign culture as long as the imagery is so ‘pure’ (as they would say in China) that it doesn’t need words or play of words to express the message.
    There are, at least, three levels to convey the message across cultures. each level representing one degree of separation from the original message:
    – the visual metaphor only, the most direct and difficult to achieve,
    – the image with words, this combination must translate well in other languages/cultures,
    – the image with play of words, I believe that there is no universal solution here; each country would have its own match of image + play of words.
    I am going to look for examples of each type, and report if I find anything interesting.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Great point, Mariella. Looking. forward to your examples!

  3. Nancy says

    Great post, Roger. Thanks! Hey, did the Schick spot run in the US?

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Not sure, Andrea. Anyone know?

  4. Dave Wedge says

    Interesting article, I love clever ads – so many seem to assume the audience is dumb. One of my favourite visual ads advertised a commentary (may have been a book or a newspaper) showing a picture of a dinasaur with the words “too big to fail?” and referred to the banking industry. Very clever and very apt.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Great example, Dave!


  5. Anton Volney says

    I can’t think of any good metaphors that I’ve seen, but I can think of a biz card of a friend which just says “BLINK” in big bold letters…and in super fine print it says, “You’re 60″…


  6. […] more on metaphors, see Persuade with Visual Metaphors and Persuade with Silky Smooth […]

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