When metaphorical ads fail

Thomas Z. Ramsøy

March 27, 2020

Many ads play on our cognitive strengths and abilities to "get a hint." But often, these metaphorical ads fail in driving much else than viewer humor and little brand attention. Here's a dos and don'ts for ensuring brand attention in metaphorical ads.

Metaphors that work but branding fails

When creatives make ads, they want to make an impact. Ads that are surprising, visually appealing, shareable, or in some other way engage the viewer are successful. At least for the ad to attract attention. But as with any ad, the point is also to link the message to the sender, especially the brand.

After all, what's the point of an ad that people love but forget the brand behind it?

Many ads fail to take into account the need for brand saliency. The ads themselves are visually appealing or stunning, and the message is insightful, funny, or thought-provoking. But still, if the brand is not seen, the ad fails!

Metaphors require time and cognitive effort

Most of the time, human perception and understanding is direct and "naive." Our ability to understand metaphors, on the other hand, put a different set of demands on our processing. To understand a metaphor, we need time to digest the information and then the cognitive capacity to process the information.

But most of the time, advertisement audiences are not interested in dedicating time to looking at ads. To expect that people have time to process the ad to understand the intended "aha" experience is likely to assume too much.

Moreover, if we then want to link this to our brand, we're probably asking for too much. Here, a series of ads from VW can be analyzed. Here, the purpose of the ad series is to make the link between 1) small animals and insects showing surprising strength, and 2) the new small car from VW.

The steps metaphorical ads require

Here we must assume that the audience needs to go through the following steps:

  1. see the ad
  2. show interest, notice the novelty
  3. make the connection between the surprisingly strong small animals/insects
  4. make the connection to the brand

Are we asking too much? Not if the brand is naturally embedded in the ad. But if the brand is barely visible, nobody will make the link to the brand or the product. The messaging fails, not because the creative or the idea is bad, but because the execution is incomplete.

Asking less, showing more

How can we make metaphors in ads work? Here, we can suggest a number of different elements that can be used either alone or in conjunction:

  • include the brand more directly as part of the ad narrative and metaphor
  • work on boosting the brand saliency
  • consider the format: print ads are more likely to have an audience that spend enough time with the ad to "get it." Social media ads are barely seen for a second and are likely to waste everybody's time
  • some metaphors are too complex and should be discarded (you need to test to find out which)
  • consider whether metaphors are best for driving home your intended message

With the abundance of clothing ads, it’s hard to see how this WWF ad will be understood as something else than a fur ad. It is only when viewers spend a bit more time with the ad that they will note the subtle link to the WWF, and then make the link to the 60 animals left in the world. This requires too much of the audience.

When metaphorical ads fail

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