When metaphors go bad: Why following deep metaphors to their logical conclusion can end in disaster
This is part of a series of articles looking at the way deep metaphor patterns our thought in marketing. You will be able to find more articles in the coming weeks
Key take away: we can get <imprisoned> in the logic of a metaphor if we forget that, at the end of the day, it’s just a way of thinking about a problem
Metaphors: explaining the complex with the simple
We need metaphors to help us think about things that we find hard to understand. They allow us to apply the logic of a <field> we know well to make sense of a <field> we know less well. I find the consumer decision-making process bewildering – but I understand how journeys work. Perhaps seeing a decision as a journey will help me understand me how people make decisions about which cat food to buy. And if we feel we understand a problem, we can gain the confidence to act rather than spinning our wheels in confusion and perplexity.
When done well, an apt metaphor doesn’t just simplify our thinking, but it propels it to new places that we hadn’t thought of before. Decisions, we said, are like journeys. But journeys can be sped up or slowed down. What will <accelerate> the cat food buying process? What are the <barriers> to automotive purchase? If we weren’t using the journey metaphor, we wouldn’t even think in these terms. Extending the logic of the first field inspires us to think in new ways about the second.
But this works both ways. An apt metaphor can simplify or accentuate our ideas in helpful ways. An ill-fitting metaphor is a straightjacket that constricts rather than enhances our thinking.
War: what is it good for?
Take the military metaphor that dominates marketing today. This seems to have come into vogue in the 1940s and 50s, as all the young men who had spent their formative years fighting Hitler came of age and took up academic positions in various mid-western business schools.
Their knowledge of actually fighting a war – a knowledge that most of us thankfully do not share – suggested to them interesting resemblances between war and business. Both activities involve competition. Both involve long term effort that may not result in immediate benefits, but may pay off in the long term. Both require the coordination of many moving parts. Both benefit from having a strategy, from the Greek word for general.
But we should remember – as the young theorists themselves could never forget – that while you can see business as war, business is not war. It’s just a metaphor. And it may not even be a very good metaphor.
For starters, who is the enemy here: the competition or the customers? Sometimes it’s one, sometimes the other. If it’s the customers, we extend the metaphor by <targeting> and <launching> <campaigns> at them. This is all a bit macho and dehumanising – but hey, at least we’re the good guys.
Trapped by the logic of language
But we get into more serious trouble when we extend the metaphor further, to talk about market <penetration> and brand <loyalty> – military metaphors that are used to describe first time buying and repeat purchase. The danger lies in the way in which the language of these metaphors leads us to interpret the bald, unmetaphorical sales data in quite weird ways.
Let’s think about <brand loyalty>. How exactly is buying a product more than once akin to being loyal to an army or a country? What value is gained by seeing the first thing in the light of the other thing? I would argue that there is next to nothing to be learned in the comparison, and much wasted effort if we apply the logic of <loyalty> to what is more usefully regarded as an unthinking habit. Following the likes of Ehrenburg, it seems that most marketing effects are probably quite ‘weak’: advertising works by increasing the number of first time buyers rather than increasing rates of purchase amongst repeat buyers. It turns out that there is no such thing as <brand loyalty>, even though the military metaphor suggests that there should be something called <brand loyalty>. Following the metaphor too far has led us astray – and also led us to waste billions of dollars in useless loyalty marketing investment each year.
Metaphors are only ever partial: the logic of one field can be mapped in part onto the logic of another field, revealing new insights about both. However, the map is not the terrain. if you push a metaphor too far, and seek not resemblance but identity of ideas, absurdity results. Just as a good metaphor can inspire thought, a bad metaphor can impede it.
What? Metaphors can be ‘extended’, so that you apply the logic of one field onto the subject matter of another
So what? Extending a good metaphor can help inspire useful insights. Extending a bad metaphor can inhibit them
Now what? Applying the War metaphor to marketing is probably and largely a waste of time