visual metaphor

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

"We're just a clever visual metaphor used to personify the abstract concept of thought" (SpongeBob worker in "No Weenies Allowed/Squilliam Returns," SpongeBob SquarePants, 2002). (Owain Kirby/Getty Images)


A visual metaphor is the representation of a person, place, thing, or idea by means of a visual image that suggests a particular association or point of similarity. Also known as pictorial metaphor and analogical juxtaposition.

Modern advertising relies heavily on visual metaphors. For example, in a magazine ad for the banking firm Morgan Stanley, a man is pictured bungee jumping off a cliff.

Two words serve to explain this visual metaphor: a dotted line from the jumper's head points to the word "You"; another line from the end of the bungee cord points to "Us." The metaphorical message—of safety and security provided in times of risk—is conveyed through a single dramatic image. (Note that this ad ran a few years before the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007-2009.)

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "Studies of visual metaphors used for rhetorical purposes generally concentrate on advertising. A familiar example is the technique of juxtaposing a picture of a sports car . . . with the image of a panther, suggesting that the product has comparable qualities of speed, power, and endurance. A variation on this common technique is to merge elements of the car and the wild animal, creating a composite image. . . ."

    "In an ad for Canadian Furs, a female model wearing a fur coat is posed and made up in a way that is slightly suggestive of a wild animal. To leave little doubt as to the intended meaning of the visual metaphor (or simply to reinforce the message), the advertiser has superimposed the phrase 'get wild' over her image."
    (Stuart Kaplan, "Visual Metaphors in Print Advertising for Fashion Products," in Handbook of Visual Communication, ed. by K. L. Smith. Routledge, 2005)
  • A Framework for Analysis
    "In Pictorial Metaphor in Advertising (1996) . . ., [Charles] Forceville sets out a theoretical framework for the analysis of pictorial metaphor. A pictorial, or visual, metaphor occurs when one visual element (tenor/target) is compared to another visual element (vehicle/source) which belongs to a different category or frame of meaning. To exemplify this, Forceville (1996, pp. 127-35) provides the example of an advert seen on a British billboard to publicize the use of the London underground. The picture features a parking meter (tenor/target) framed as the head of a dead creature whose body is shaped as the fleshless spinal column of a human being (vehicle/source). In this example, the vehicle visually transfers, or maps, the meaning of 'dying' or 'dead' (because of lack of food) onto the parking meter, resulting in the metaphor PARKING METER IS A DYING FEATURE (Forceville, 1996, p. 131). Considering that the advert wants to promote public transport, having lots of parking meters wasting away in the streets of London can only be a positive thing for underground users and the underground system itself."
    (Nina Norgaard, Beatrix Busse, and Rocío Montoro, Key Terms in Stylistics. Continuum, 2010)
  • Visual Metaphor in an Ad for Absolut Vodka
    "[The] subcategory of visual metaphor involving some violation of physical reality is a very common convention in advertising. . . . An Absolut Vodka ad, labeled 'ABSOLUT ATTRACTION,' shows a martini glass next to a bottle of Absolut; the glass is bent in the direction of the bottle, as if being drawn toward it by some invisible force . . .."
    (Paul Messaris, Visual Persuasion: The Role of Images in Advertising. Sage, 1997)
  • Image and Text: Interpreting Visual Metaphors
    - "[W]e have noticed a decrease in the amount of anchoring copy used in visual metaphor ads . . .. We theorize that, over time, advertisers have perceived that consumers are growing more competent in understanding and interpreting visual metaphor in ads."
    (Barbara J. Phillips, "Understanding Visual Metaphor in Advertising," in Persuasive Imagery, ed. by L. M. Scott and R. Batra. Erlbaum, 2003)

    - "A visual metaphor is a device for encouraging insights, a tool to think with. . . .

    "That is, with visual metaphors, the image-maker proposes food for thought without stating any determinate proposition. It is the task of the viewer to use the image for insight."
    (Noël Carroll, "Visual Metaphor," in Beyond Aesthetics. Cambridge University Press, 2001)
  • Visual Metaphor in Films
    "One of our most important tools as filmmakers is visual metaphor, which is the ability of images to convey a meaning in addition to their straightforward reality. Think of it as 'reading between the lines' visually. . . . A couple of examples: in Memento, the extended flashback (which moves forward in time) is shown in black-and-white and the present (which moves backward in time) is told in color. Essentially, it is two parts of the same story with one part moving forwards and the other part told backward. At the point in time where they intersect, the black-and-white slowly changes to color. Director Christopher Nolan accomplishes this in a subtle and elegant way by showing a Polaroid develop . . .."
    (Blain Brown, Cinematography: Theory and Practice, 2nd ed. Focal Press, 2011)