Optimising the Use of Synaesthetic Metaphors in Advertising: The Roles of Metaphor Construction and Complexity

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Optimising the Use of Synaesthetic Metaphors in Advertising: The Roles of Metaphor Construction and Complexity


Emily Davenport




Metaphors are commonly employed in advertising to increase its persuasive effects. Research suggests that metaphors are most effective when conveyed visually, however linguists believe that additionally providing a linguistic cue, designed to help metaphor interpretation, can increase their effectiveness. In addition, metaphors of medium complexity are believed to drive higher effectiveness than simpler or more complex metaphors. This research aims to investigate how these issues relate to synaesthetic metaphors, those that reference two sensory modalities. Participants were presented with print adverts, the visual and linguistic elements of which were adapted to contain literal messages or synaesthetic metaphors. Participants provided ratings of appreciation, purchase intentions, and perceived advert complexity. Synaesthetic metaphors were shown to produce significantly stronger persuasive effects, measured via appreciation and purchase intentions, when conveyed visually and when rated highly on complexity. Implications for advertisers, who wish to incorporate and optimise the use of synaesthetic metaphors in print advertising, are discussed.


Metaphors; Synaesthetic Metaphors; Advertising; Persuasiveness


This research recruited 122 participants via opportunistic sampling. Participants were native speakers of English aged 18 or over, with no history of disabilities in any of the sensory domains (sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch). Twelve participants were excluded due to incomplete survey responses and/or ineligibility according to the inclusion criteria, resulting in a sample of 110 participants (88 female, 20 male, 2 other; age: M = 38.11, SD = 18.60) who were randomly assigned to complete one of four surveys (see Design). The demographics per survey are detailed in Table 1.

Table 1
The Sample Size and Demographics Per Survey
N Gender Age
Male Female Other Mean SD
Survey 1 28 4 24 - 43.68 18.94
Survey 2 29 7 21 1 32.90 17.77
Survey 3 28 5 22 1 35.07 17.09
Survey 4 25 4 21 - 41.32 19.48

Advert Stimuli
The advert stimuli used in this research were gathered and modified by previous researchers at Francesca Citron’s laboratory (Chen, 2019; Pan, 2019). The researchers obtained real adverts containing synaesthetic metaphors from the dataset of Bolognesi and Strik Lievers (2018). These base adverts were labelled 1-8 (see Appendix A). The researchers produced three modified versions of each base advert. They edited the visual and linguistic elements, of product images and slogans respectively, to contain, or not contain, a synaesthetic metaphor, in accordance with the ‘Metaphor Category’ they represented.
One version of each base advert conveyed a synaesthetic metaphor in both the visual and linguistic advert elements (Visual-Linguistic SM; labelled “VL”). One version contained a synaesthetic metaphor in the visual, but not linguistic, advert elements (Visual SM Only; labelled “V). One version contained a synaesthetic metaphor in the linguistic, but not visual, advert elements (Linguistic SM Only; labelled “L”). The final version served as a control as a synaesthetic metaphor did not appear in the visual or linguistic advert elements (No SM; labelled “N”). These metaphor categories are illustrated by the example of Advert 2 (see Figure 1). In 2VL, the image displays a lemon wearing a studded mask whilst the slogan writes “A PLEASINGLY SHARP TASTE”. This synaesthetic metaphor, conveyed by the image and slogan, attributes the lemonade as having a sharp taste, which references the sensory modalities of touch (via “sharp” in the slogan, and the studded mask in the image) and taste (via “taste” in the slogan, and the lemon in the image). In 2V, the synaesthetic metaphor containing the image of 2VL is retained, however the slogan, “A PLEASINGLY SOUR TASTE”, no longer contains a synaesthetic metaphor since it a) is literal and b) only references one sense (via “sour taste”). In contrast, 2L retains the synaesthetic metaphor-containing slogan of 2VL (“A PLEASINGLY SHARP TASTE”) but contains a literal product image. The synaesthetic metaphor here therefore only appears in the linguistic advert elements. In 2N, the image of 2L and the slogan of 2V appear, meaning that a synaesthetic metaphor is not conveyed in either the visual or linguistic elements.
This process, of creating four versions per base advert, resulted in 32 advert stimuli. Within this, eight adverts, one per base advert, represented each metaphor category. The advert stimuli were labelled according to their base advert number (1-8) and their metaphor category (VL; V; L; N). For example, 1VL presents the version of base advert 1 belonging to the visual-linguistic SM category. The full stimuli set can be viewed in Appendix A. The synaesthetic metaphors constructed in the stimuli, and the sensory domains referenced (see Table 2), are briefly explained in Appendix B. All adverts were written in English and printed in full colour.

Online Survey
This research used a modified version of a Qualtrics (Provo, UT) survey produced by Chen (2019) and Pan (2019). The original survey featured 11 bipolar Likert scales per advert stimuli, all intended to contain 5-points but with some mistakenly containing 7-points. This was corrected in the present research, with all scales measured 0-5. The first four scales, measuring “Appreciation”, asked participants whether they liked the advert (Agree – Disagree) and whether they perceived it as “Bad”–“Good”; “Unpleasant”-“Pleasant”; and “Unappealing”-“Appealing”. The two following questions measured “Perceived Complexity” and concerned participants’ perception of the advert as “Unclear”–“Straightforward” and as “Difficult to Understand”– “Easy to Understand”. The next three questions measured “Purchase Intentions”. In the original survey, these focused on the purchase intentions of the respondent. This was modified in this research, following Pan (2019) and Chen’s (2019) finding that purchase intentions were merged with appreciation in PCA, and the belief that personal factors influence purchase intentions (Habich-Sobiegalla et al., 2019). The current survey instead asked respondents whether others would like to purchase the product, soon and in the future, and whether the advert would make others more likely to purchase the product (“Disagree”-“Agree”). On the final two questions, measuring “Perceived Realism”, participants rated the advert as “Unrealistic”–“Realistic” and “Fictitious”– “Real”. This question set was presented per advert stimulus, resulting in a total of 88 questions per survey.

Figure 1
The Four Versions of Advert 2
Table 2
The Sensory Domains Referenced by Each Advert, When Sensory Metaphors Were and Were Not Present
Sensory Domains Referenced
SM Present No SM Present
Source Target
Advert 1 Auditory Taste Taste
Advert 2 Tactile Taste Taste
Advert 3 Tactile Taste Taste
Advert 4 Visual Auditory Auditory
Advert 5 Visual Auditory Auditory
Advert 6 Visual Smell Smell
Advert 7 Auditory Taste Taste
Advert 8 Tactile Taste Taste

In an independent groups design, participants were randomly assigned to complete one of four online surveys. The independent variable was the metaphor category of each advert. Each survey presented eight adverts, one belonging to each of the eight base adverts and two belonging to each of the four metaphor categories. For example, Survey 1 presented two Visual-SM only adverts (Adverts 1 and 5), two Linguistic-SM Only adverts (Adverts 2 and 6), two Visual-Linguistic SM adverts (Adverts 3 and 7), and two No-SM adverts (Adverts 4 and 8), with one version of each base advert appearing only once. Table 3 lists the advert stimuli presented per survey. The four dependent variables, of ‘Appreciation’, ‘Purchase Intentions’, ‘Perceived Realism’ and ‘Perceived Complexity’, are further detailed in Materials and Variable Construction.

Table 3
The Adverts Displayed per Survey, In Order of Appearance
Survey 1 Survey 2 Survey 3 Survey 4
1V 3N 5VL 7L
2L 4V 6N 8VL
3VL 5L 7V 1N
4N 6VL 8L 2V
5V 7N 1VL 3L
6L 8V 2N 4VL
7VL 1L 3V 5N
8N 2VL 4L 6V

The entirety of this study was completed on Qualtrics (Provo, UT). Participants were informed of the researchers' background and requirements, and briefed of their anonymity, confidentiality and right to withdraw (Appendix C), before providing informed consent (Appendix D). Participants declared their age and gender and confirmed that English was their native language and that they did not suffer from any sensory inabilities. Participants viewed each of the eight adverts in turn and answered 11 five-point Bipolar Likert scales per advert (see Materials, Survey). Finally, participants were debriefed, reminded of their terms of participation, and provided with further reading (Appendix E). The study took 10 minutes to complete.


Lancaster University






Cameron Hoppu




Follow up on previous research in Francesca Citron's lab









Francesca Citron

Project Level




Sample Size

122, but 12 excluded so final sample of 110.

Statistical Analysis Type

ANCOVA, ANOVA, Regression, and T-Test.



Emily Davenport, “Optimising the Use of Synaesthetic Metaphors in Advertising: The Roles of Metaphor Construction and Complexity,” LUSTRE, accessed April 1, 2023, https://www.johnntowse.com/LUSTRE/items/show/142.