There is something wrong with marketing metaphors

I have been thinking about metaphors (in marketing) a bit, and what they are good for. Some of the most popular representatives are: “influentials”, “social influence”, “tap into community”, “break through the clutter”, “building buzz”, “bottom-up”, “social currency”, “viral video”, and “consumer control”. (Disclaimer: I acknowledge that Noah likes this topic, but I suspect that we in fact are interested in two completely different phenomena related to the concept of a “metaphor”, so not linking to his stuff here.)

I am mainly thinking about free and deliberate use of the above terms as metaphors to address the complexity of social behavior in digital media. Metaphors are, in reality, great rhetorical devices but often extremely poor explanatory tools. For example, whenever someone uses “break through the clutter”, they assume that: a) there is an agreement on its meaning: i.e. that everyone else uses that term in the same way, b) that there is a clearly identified situation that this term refers to, and c) that just by using the term, they explain this situation.

Neither of which is correct or, for that matter, helpful. Why? Well, it contributes to the status quo in the industry: despite of the fact that they employ the metaphors, marketing people continue doing what they know how to do best — bicker with each other, watch Mad Men, build minisites, rip off their clients, create flash banners, and go to award shows. The new media environment and its actual consequences for clients’ businesses remain on some PowerPoint slide, locked in a metaphor of choice that is very easy to understand but equally hard to explain.

To rely on metaphors in fact just prolongs the illusion of having the challenging situation under control (something like: if we name it, we understand it). But naming a problem does not solve it. It just makes people talk more and more about it, and invent their own variations on the theme. Second, metaphors work retroactively. They can only apply to things that already happen. But they can’t actually predict if that same thing is going to ever happen again. So, in a way, they are on the verge of useless.

Digital media have been around for a while now, and people are still creating minisites that may “go viral”, but that will definitely “break through the clutter”. They seek to target “influentials”, and “tap into the power of community”. It all works perfectly together.

Except, that it actually does not. What’s missing is the evidence that a connection between “viral” and “video” actually exists. It’s a perfect crime, as Baudrillard would say.

How would a marketing world without metaphors look like? Instead of being intimidating, the world of not knowing how to name something — and how to connect something new to something familiar — should in fact be liberating. Why? Because it actually takes off the pressure of predicting the future based on the past (and the business of future-telling this is by no means an easy feat).

The role of metaphors in society was (and still is) to transfer knowledge from previous generations in order to illustrate new situations, and, to use a model or idea from one domain of human experience and apply it to another. It can be incredibly inspiring if it offers fruitful insights and innovative ways of approaching a situation. But it can also be incredibly stifling when a metaphor actually masks the novelty of a situation.

Seems to me that we are currently struggling with the latter.

Originally published on September 14, 2009