The Power of a Metaphor

This terrific PSA-style ad series from Team Detroit for the College of Creative Studies in Detroit is a great example of the use of metaphor. In this series, the language, the photos, and the style of the ads all mimic ads about drugs, giving us an “art=drugs” metaphor that catches eyes and gets repinned and Liked (I first saw it at Eric Huber’s Facebook page, and he saw it at the Philbrook’s page).

Philbrook Museum posterIt’s clever, but metaphor is widely used in ads for more reasons than that. If your metaphor is successful, it brings a huge amount of content into a small space. “1 in 5 teenagers will experiment with art” along with the fine print “Talk to your kids about art school” gives us the compelling nature of art, the admitted fact that parents sometimes worry about kids who want to make the arts their career, the reality that art school is a good way to direct the passion for art toward a living wage, and possibly also a bit of a suggestion that art is a wholesome alternative to drugs.

That’s a lot to pack into two brief sentences.

Does this work in web content? Not necessarily. The problem is, search engines don’t get metaphor. I worked on a website once which wanted to use the headline from their print ad campaign for their website, too. “One of the nation’s best kept secrets.” Can you tell what the company does? Neither can a search engine. Anything requiring context and previous experience is lost on robots. Anything requiring images to clarify the point is also lost on robots. Robots don’t get jokes.

That doesn’t mean you can’t use metaphor in your web content. Just consider these suggestions:

  • Don’t use metaphor for your main headings. Main headings are supposed to be the most important stuff at your website, and search engines pay extra attention to them. They have to communicate clearly.
  • Don’t use the metaphor to the exclusion of clearer messages. When you have a good metaphor, you don’t want to give it up. If your company is a rocket ship, then you may want to zoom past the competition, send your customers into orbit, and explore the very edges of the universe — but search engines will not offer you up to people who searched for “accounting software” if that’s all you’re saying. Get the basics on the screen in the right places, and decorate with extra flourishes and tendrils of metaphor.
  • Don’t use the wrong metaphor. The College of Creative Studies is betting that parents prepared to pay for their kids’ art school education will find the art=drugs metaphor funny. Most companies couldn’t get away with equating their products to drugs. Online, equating your product to something that turns up mostly in shady online neighborhoods can send your product right to the shady neighborhoods. It’s hard for the most respectable nutritional supplements to stay out of shady neighborhoods online, so calling your dry cleaning service “Vitamins for your professional image” is an online error. Might be just the thing for your print ads, but don’t chance it on your website.








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