Concept of Metaphor and the Study of Communication

“Metaphor,” write Lakoff and Johnson, “is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action” (3). This is a bold assertion since, as the authors themselves note, the majority of people consider metaphor to be merely “a device of the poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish” (Lakoff and Johnson 3). The authors define metaphor as “understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another” (Lakoff and Johnson 5), and introduce the idea of “metaphorical concepts” in order to develop their main argument that “human thought processes are largely metaphorical” (Lakoff and Johnson 6).

The metaphorical concept “argument is war” is considered as an example (Lakoff and Johnson 4). Other related metaphors, including “I demolished his argument,” and “he shot down all of my arguments,” demonstrate the authors’ claim that metaphors such as “argument is war” are central to our culture and in fact “structure the actions we perform” (Lakoff and Johnson 4). According to Lakoff and Johnson, human thought and communication depends heavily on metaphors which are used by humans to make sense out of their surroundings.

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The “argument is war” metaphor demonstrates that the meaning of “argument” is often understood in terms of “war”. Lakoff and Johnson point out that, if the “argument is war” metaphor did not exist, a different metaphorical concept would provide a framework within which to think about argument, for example “argument is dance”. According to the authors, this is true of all other aspects of human thought and communication. Each idea is understood through comparison with an already established idea or concept.

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There are numerous examples of this process at work. In the margins of their book, Understanding Human Communication, Alder and Rodman include and define what they term “cultural idioms”. The amusing expressions are in fact metaphorical concepts. A “sure-fire” plan is “certain to succeed” (18), to get “a fair shake” is to get “honest treatment” (91), to “save face” is to “protect one’s dignity” (161), to “put someone down” is to “insult or degrade” them (196), and to “let off steam” is to “release tension” (481).

Lakoff and Johnson’s theory of metaphorical concepts can be used to develop new means of studying communication which focus on identifying and analyzing use of metaphors and metaphorical concepts in language. A general framework for such a method is not difficult to contrive. First of all, because most messages are rife with metaphors and is difficult if not impossible to focus on the use of all metaphors at once, it is important to determine the topic of interest.

Secondly, using a broad set of possible metaphorical concepts for the chosen topic, the message is analyzed word-for-word in order to identify metaphors. Finally, the identified metaphors are evaluated against the possible metaphorical concepts and independent language images and conventional metaphor is documented. As a means of studying communication, Lakoff and Johnson’s theory of metaphorical concepts is useful in facilitating the critical interpretation of media messages. Given the pervasiveness of metaphors in human thought and communication, it is not surprising that advertising is engorged with them.

Advertisers very effectively use metaphor in order to indirectly associate a product with a metaphorical concept which has positive connotations. Often, the metaphor used in an advertisement becomes incorporated into thought patterns with the result that the association with the product is profound and lasting. This effect can be seen in the attitudes of the teenage subjects interviewed by Gillespie in “Cool Bodies: TV Ad Talk”. “TV advertisements” notes Gillespie, “function as myths and metaphors” (176).

This claim is echoed by Fiske in “The Jeaning of America”. “Advertising is used in an attempt to give meanings” to products and enable people “to recognize their own social identity and values in the product” (Fiske 6). In Southall, England, television provides powerful metaphors of national and western culture. Gillespie’s interviews with South Asian teenagers illustrate how metaphorical concepts used in television advertising are being internalized by youth and ultimately creating a desire and acting as a catalyst for cultural change.

Gillespie’s work is an important example of how cultures are shaped and changed through reception of advertising metaphors. During the interviews, the teenagers displayed “a set of shared cultural reference points, images and metaphors which spice local speech” and are derived from advertisements (Gillespie 178). One example of this is “the slogan ‘I bet he drinks Carling Black Label'”, which Gillespie found to be “a common refrain” to accompany a success such as a goal in sports (178).

A major metaphorical concept is used in advertisements for American products such as Coca Cola and McDonald’s, both immensely popular with the youth Gillespie interviewed. The major metaphorical concept is America is freedom, a utopian image easily internalized by the young consumers. Gillespie notes that this metaphor is “a myth – a mythical construction of an American teenage lifestyle and of America itself” (176). Within the framework of the America is freedom concept, the metaphor typically introduced by the advertisements is therefore understood as product X is America and consequently product X is freedom.

Coca Cola, with its ambiguous slogan, “you can’t beat the feeling” and its catchy, highly metaphoric commercials, has achieved “an unparalleled popularity among the youth of Southall” (Gillespie 191). While the slogan itself could easily be a metaphor for “the emotional and sensual experience of adolescence” (Gillespie 192), it is the visual, idealized commercials that truly capture the imagination of the young audience and can be linked to the metaphorical concept America is freedom. Metaphorically, “… the consumption of Coke promises happiness, love, friendship, freedom and popularity.

In the world promised by the ads, relationships are uncomplicated; young people simply care for each other, everyone loves one another and socializes together; life is fun and free. ” (Gillespie 193-194) Gillespie notes that “the appeal of McDonald’s and Coca Cola ads and slogans succeeds on a very similar level” (199). McDonald’s burgers are seen as a metaphor for “freedom because they represent a food which you don’t have to have” (Gillespie 199). The imagery, songs, and slogans used in advertisements for McDonald’s and Coca Cola connote an “ideal ‘freedom’ which transcends boundaries” (Gillespie 204).

According to Gillespie, these are not the bland commercials which are viewed as “unwelcome marker(s) of their difference” (197), but vibrant “teenage dreams” (198) brimming with metaphors: McDonald’s is America! Coke is America! and since America is freedom, Coke and McDonald’s are freedom! Such metaphor use in advertising is highly effective and should not be underestimated. “America, as experienced through the media has itself become the prime object of consumption and a symbol of pleasure” (Gillespie 176).

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Concept of Metaphor and the Study of Communication. (2020, Jun 01). Retrieved from

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