Metaphor and Persuasive Communication: A Multifunctional Approach

persuasive

Metaphor and Persuasive Communication:

A Multifunctional Approach

By: Victor C. Ottati* and Randall A. Renstrom
Loyola University Chicago

Abstract

Metaphors are pervasive in both mass communication and interpersonal exchanges and can play
an important role in persuasion. Metaphor serves multiple functions in persuasive communication,
and the effect of metaphor on persuasion is potentially mediated by multiple psychological process
mechanisms. Nevertheless, we propose that past and future research in this area can be organized
or grouped into three simple categories. First, metaphorical statements can activate information
that is directly applied to the communication topic and thereby influence attitudes toward the
communication topic. Second, metaphorical language may influence impressions of the communi-
cation source and thereby impact attitudes toward the communication topic. Third, metaphors
may affect attitudes toward the communication topic by influencing the direction or amount of
elaboration that takes place when recipients process literal statements contained in the communica-
tion. A review of past research is organized into these three categories, and proposals for future
research in each category are introduced. It is concluded that future research within each of these
domains should focus on two related questions: under what conditions does metaphor elicit a
given psychological process in the receiver (e.g., attribute mapping, valence transfer), and under
what conditions will a given process result in an increase versus decrease in persuasion?

Metaphor is pervasive in both mass communication and personal linguistic exchanges
(Gibbs, 1994; Lakoff, 1987; Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). Poets tell us that love is a ‘light,’ a
‘fire,’ or form of ‘energy’. Politicians have sought to ‘build a bridge to the 21st century,’
‘ignite a thousand points of light,’ or provide ‘tax relief’. Metaphors can furnish vivid
images, convey multiple meanings in a concise fashion, or express that which cannot be
stated in literal terms (Gibbs & Bogdonovich, 1999; Graesser, Mio, & Millis, 1989;
Ortony, 1975; Paivio, 1979). Some theorists have even argued that all higher-order cog-
nitive functioning is metaphorical in nature (e.g., Lakoff, 1987; Lakoff & Johnson, 1980).
Metaphorical statements often pertain to an attitude object (e.g., ‘Pollution is a cancer,’
‘Elvis is king’), and as such, may play an important role in persuasive communications.
A metaphor contains a topic and a vehicle (Ortony, 1975; Richards, 1936). The topic
is the object or phenomenon being described, whereas the vehicle is some other object
or phenomenon that conveys a certain meaning about the topic. For example, ‘Juliet is
the sun’ contains ‘Juliet’ as the topic and ‘sun’ as the vehicle. Models of metaphor com-
prehension often assume the comprehension process entails mapping semantic or evalua-
tive implications of the vehicle onto the topic (e.g., Gentner, 1983; Gibbs, 1992; see
Ortony, Reynolds, & Arter, 1978 for a review). Thus, ‘Juliet is the sun’ might convey
that Juliet is a source of energy, warmth, and happiness, or that Juliet simply possesses a
positive valence. Alternatively, ‘television is an addiction’ might convey that watching
television is unhealthy, habit forming, and difficult to stop, or simply that watching tele-
vision is undesirable (cf. Bowdle & Gentner, 2005; Chiappe & Kennedy, 2001; Gentner
Social and Personality Psychology Compass
4/9 (2010): 783–794, 10.1111/j.1751-9004.2010.00292.x
ª
2010 The Authors
Social and Personality Psychology Compass
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2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
& Clements, 1988; Gibbs & Gerrig, 1989; Glucksberg & Keysar, 1990; Kintsch, 2001;
Ortony, 1979; Ortony, Vondruska, Foss, & Jones, 1985).
Work regarding metaphor and persuasive communication includes purely theoretical
writings, nonexperimental studies, and experimental research (Mio, 1997). Empirical stud-
ies regarding the psychological mediators of metaphor effects on persuasion is growing
into a substantial body of literature (e.g., Bowers & Osborn, 1966; Frey & Eagly, 1993;
Graesser et al., 1989; Hitchon, 1997; Johnson & Taylor, 1981; Landau, Sullivan, &
Greenberg, 2009; Mio, 1996; Ottati, Rhoads, & Graesser, 1999; Read, Cesa, Jones, &
Collins, 1990; Sopory & Dillard, 2002). Much of this research has been performed by
scholars outside of social psychology (e.g., communication, cognitive psychology). As a
consequence, this literature has yet to fully incorporate the implications of mainstream
social psychological models of persuasion (e.g., the Elaboration Likelihood and Heuristic-
Systematic Models). One objective of this study is to more fully incorporate the implica-
tions of these models when considering research on metaphor and persuasion.
An additional objective of this study is to provide a conceptualization of metaphor
effects on persuasion that is both comprehensive and simple. Past research has often
focused on very specific effects of metaphor on persuasion, and reviews of the literature
have considered a large list of specific hypotheses, predictions, and findings (e.g., Sopory
& Dillard, 2002). What is needed, however, is a coherent overarching conceptual frame-
work for organizing this expanding number of hypotheses, predictions, and findings.
Social psychological approaches to persuasion have traditionally emphasized relatively sim-
ple taxonomies that subsume a vast array of effects (e.g., ‘Who says what to whom?’).
This study takes an analogous approach when considering past and future research regard-
ing the effects of metaphor on persuasion. We assume that metaphor serves multiple
functions in persuasive communication, and that the effect of metaphor on attitudes
toward the communication topic is complex and mediated by multiple psychological pro-
cess mechanisms. Nevertheless, we believe it is possible to organize or group this work
into three general categories (see Figure 1).
First, metaphorical statements might influence the recipient’s impression of the com-
munication topic in a relatively direct manner. When this is the case, the effect of meta-
phor on attitude toward the communication topic is independent of other cues (e.g.,
source credibility, argument strength). Second, the effect of metaphor on attitude toward
the communication topic might be mediated by the message recipient’s impression of the
communication source. Lastly, the effect of metaphor on attitude toward the communication.

Metaphor and Persuasive Communication: A Multifunctional Approach

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