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Visual Metaphor in TV Commercials

by Jeremy Butler

One method for generating visual metaphors is through a sequence of images—much as Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein theorized 90 years ago. By bringing two or more images together in sequence, a filmmaker can imply that one image should be compared with the other and that there are similarities between them. A staunch socialist and revolutionary, Eisenstein advocated the use of visual metaphor or, as he called it, intellectual montage, for political causes. In the instance of his film Strike, he intercut shots of heroic striking workers being beaten by police with shots of a bull being slaughtered ( The metaphoric meaning is clear: strikers are cattle. And, further, it graphically argues that a gross injustice is being done.

Advertisers have usurped Eisenstein’s principle to sell commodities. For instance, a commercial for the Audi 55 Sportback car constructs a metaphor that associates the car with the famous racehorse, Secretariat. begins on a shots of a horse and jockey making their way onto a racetrack and into a starting gate. When the gate opens, however, the Audi accelerates down the track. With a quick cut to the horse, the narrator intones, “What made Secretariat the greatest racehorse who ever lived? Of course he was strong. Intelligent. Explosive”. The editor cuts back and forth between the car and the horse—suggesting, obviously, that the car is strong, intelligent, explosive, but never saying that plainly. Viewers must draw that conclusion on their own.

Then the narrator answers his rhetorical question about what made Secretariat the greatest: “The true secret in his perfection was a heart twice the size of an average horse.” This is reinforced with shots of veterinarians looking at an x-ray of some random horse with a large heart! Are we to think that this Audi automobile has a large “heart” in some sense? The intended meaning is not nailed down and the narrator provides no further clues, but an evocative graphic of a black frame with white text follows the x-ray shots: “The all-new, 354 hp Audi S5 Sportback is here.” Then, “Progress is powered from within.” Thus, Audi is emphasizing the 354 horsepower of this machine by metaphorically linking it to a literal power of a horse, Secretariat. Just as an over-sized heart powered Secretariat, the ad implies, so does an oversized engine power the 55 Sportback. But, again, this is never clearly stated by the narrator or the text.

Visual Metaphors in TV Commercials

A TV commercial for the Audi S5 Sportback uses montage to construct a metaphor: car = horse.

from Audi commercial (2017)
Creator: Audi
Posted by Jeremy Butler