Publishable summary

1.1. Summary of the context and overall objectives of the project

  • What is the problem/issue being addressed?
  • Why is it important for society?
  • What are the overall objectives?

EMMA (European Multimodal Metaphor in Advertising), funded by the European Commission within the Marie S. Curie fellowships scheme (ref: EMMA-658079), explored the combination of metaphor and metonymy in advertising and measured their impact on the interpretation, speed of comprehension and general effectiveness of advertisements. Metaphor and metonymy are key tools in communication, particularly when abstract ideas or emotions are involved. While extant literature addresses metaphor in language and images, little work has been done on the combination of metaphor and metonymy in the multimodal context of advertising, where they play a key role. In order to address this research gap, EMMA fellowship assessed the level of figurative complexity in English, Spanish and Chinese advertisements, and explored the relationship between the figurative complexity of the advertisement and people’s ability to comprehend them, and their perceived effectiveness.

Our key findings are that the presence of metaphor, irony and hyperbole in advertisements increases their appeal; multilayered metaphors are particularly effective in conveying complex messages and are understood more quickly than single layered metaphors; and responses vary significantly according to the viewer’s nationality. If advertisers, charities and NGOs are sensitive to, linguistic and cultural differences in people’s responses to figurative messaging in metaphors, local and international communities are more likely to benefit from specific, appropriate and ethical advertising.

1.2. Work performed from the beginning of the project to the end of the period covered by the report and main results achieved so far 

EMMA employed a mixed-methods approach of lab experiments and qualitative inquiry to analyse the impact of figurative complexity in static and video advertisements on the speed and depth of comprehension, perceived appeal, and emotional response. The study included participants from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds (UK, Spain, China, and Hong Kong). Our experiments combined reaction time studies, moment-by-moment self-reports (real-time reporting of emotional intensity through EDA sensors, a physiological measure of arousal), and interviews to ascertain how, when and why emotions are induced in advertisements and to determine the type, intensity and duration of emotions that are experienced in response to different types of advertising.

Our project comprised five stages. We first selected appropriate advertisements from the UK, China and Spain to analyse in detail the types of figurative language used. We then collected data from 90 participants (30 from each country) on speed of understanding, as well as perceived appeal, moment-by-moment measures to identify the positivity and perceived intensity of an induced emotion, and post-hoc, semi-structured interviews to ascertain participants’ perceptions of each advertisement. Data collection took place in Birmingham (UK), in Logroño (Spain), and Ningbo (China). Once data collection was finished, we conducted a quantitative analysis to establish the relationships between figurative language used, the number, nature and complexity of interpretations, the speed of comprehension and appeal of the advertisements, as well as the degree of cross-cultural variation. In the subsequent qualitative analysis of the interview data, we investigated the number, nature and complexity of the interpretations provided by the participants from the three different nationalities to establish the variation in the interpretation of the advert and the understanding of the product and associated attributes.

We have disseminated our results to a wide range of different audiences and nationalities. Academically, we have presented our work at our partner institution (the Metaphor Lab, University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands) as well as at other academic institutions such as Lund University (Sweden), Nottingham-Ningbo University (China), and Rice University (Houston), and at the Open University Hong Kong. During the fellowship, we have published two peer-reviewed research articles, two book chapters, and a research monograph with John Benjamins. We have another book under contract for 2020 with Cambridge UP, and four research articles currently under review.

We have also organised our own hands-on workshops within larger events geared towards a general audience, such as the British Science Week in the UK in 2016 and 2017, the European Researchers Night 2017 in Brussels (Belgium), Pint of Science 2016 (Spain), and have also participated in the International Day of Women and Girls in Science in 2017. We have organised two specific workshops for professionals (“Examining Language in Business” and “Everyday Creativity in Communication”) that have raised the awareness of advertisers to the potential of conscious implementation of figurative language in their campaigns. We have consulted and collaborated with several local SMEs that have shown interest in our project, such as Big Cat Advertising and Creativity (Birmingham and London, UK), Roopra Medical (Birmingham, UK), and Creative Semiotics (London, UK). We are currently expanding our professional network, with specific funding to enhance the impact of the fellowship among professionals working in the field of advertising.

1.3. Progress beyond the state of the art, expected results until the end of the project and potential impacts (including the socio-economic impact and the wider societal implications of the project so far)

 This is the first broad-scale study to explore the role of emotion in figurative language comprehension using authentic data, and to establish whether figurative complexity affects speed of comprehension and appreciation of the message being conveyed. It provides valuable information for advertising agencies, NGOs and charities on the advantages, or otherwise, of introducing figurative complexity into their campaigns.

We have disseminated our findings to people working in the field of advertising and marketing through training events and online materials (publicly accessible on the project’s website), detailing examples of good practice and possible pitfalls regarding the use of figurative language in advertising campaigns that are designed to target a multicultural audience. Our training materials can be incorporated into PR and social media strategies in order to increase their appeal to a range of diverse audiences, and to avoid unexpected interpretations from consumers from different countries (in particular, from UK, Spain, China, and Hong Kong). Our findings are also useful for advertisers wishing to use figurative language in a conscious way, in order to anticipate, for example, the potential processing time needed by viewers. This is important when viewers tend to have limited viewing time, e.g., when driving past billboards or browsing webpages with banner adverts. Likewise, our results have the potential to help advertisers get a clearer idea about the types of figurative language that evoke emotion and better engage the viewer, thus leading to positive product evaluation by potential consumers, and to adverts becoming viral.

Work on this project has been granted a number of awards, including the “Prize for Outstanding Dissertation” (University of La Rioja, Spain, 2017; this prize also takes into account the research of Paula Pérez-Sobrino during the Marie Curie fellowship); the “Young Researchers’ Award” at the 2nd International Conference on Figurative Thought and Language (University of Pavia, Italy, 2016); and a travel and subsistence bursary to present project findings at Rice University (Houston, USA, 2016). The research fellow was also a finalist in the category “Best Science Communicator” in the Marie Curie Prizes 2017.