By Ilona Plug, 19 June 2017


Imagine yourself driving on the highway on a beautiful sunny day, suddenly passing by a giant billboard depicting a red off-road car and a tough looking rhinoceros. Unless you are stuck in a traffic jam, you probably did not get the exact meaning of this advertisement and find yourself thinking; Was it an advertisement for road trips in Africa? Does it mean that wildlife nature and the human world are living more closely together than before, and that I am now warned for the possibility that rhinos could cross this road? Or maybe a new zoo has been opened recently, including a safari park?

Nope, all wrong. In the right bottom corner of the ad a brand name is shown; ‘Kuruma, 4×4 cars’. Aaaaah, it’s an advertisement for cars! But, hold on, what’s the rhino doing th… oooh, the car is like a rhino! Strong, tough, sturdy, robust, cool, and maybe even unique in existence. Yes, well done dear perceivers!


Studying puzzles in advertisements

Such a puzzle that is frequently used in advertisements is called a visual metaphor, depicting a connection between something with specific characteristics or qualities (called the ‘source’, e.g. a rhinoceros) and the thing advertised for (called the ‘target’, e.g. a red off-road car). In the case of the rhino and the car, the connection is based on similarity; ‘the car is like a rhino’.

Two years ago, five researchers from the Radboud University in Nijmegen conducted an experiment to investigate which visual metaphors people like most in advertisements. For eight different advertisements, the researchers created four versions of the ad that differed in complexity; no metaphor at all (e.g. only the car), a juxtaposition (e.g. car and rhino next to each other), a fusion (e.g. car and rhino combined in one object), and a replacement (e.g. only the rhino). Each of the advertisements also contained a fictional brand name, followed by the type of product between parentheses, in the right bottom corner. Jochem Aben, one of the researchers, explains why they chose for fictional brand names like Kuruma (4×4 cars), Fruity Gold (apple juice) and PH Plus (smartphones): “People already have certain beliefs and thoughts about existing brands like Heineken or Shell. To reduce the probability that participants would apply their attitudes towards a brand to their attitudes about an advertisement for that brand, we chose to use fictional brands in our study.”

Participants were asked how much they liked the advertisements, how interesting they found the advertisements, how easy it was for them to recognize and understand the advertisements, and what they thought the advertisements were about. An interesting addition was the difference in time the participants had to perceive the advertisements. According to Jochem, the researchers expected that the length of exposure would influence the preference for a specific type of visual metaphor, either less or more complex. Half of the participants had 5 seconds (5000 msec) to look at the ads, while the other half of the participants only had 0,1 second (100 msec).


Speed devils like it easy

The findings of the study showed that participants who only had 0,1 second to look at the advertisements, most liked both the ads with no metaphor at all (e.g. only the car) and the replacements (e.g. only the rhino). High ratings for recognisability and understanding probably explain this preference for ads with only one simple image over ads with two images next to each other (juxtaposition) and one mixed image (fusion). “It is known that within 100 msec people are able to make a maximum of one fixation. In order to interpret a replacement as a visual metaphor at least two fixations are needed, since you have to identify the picture AND the brand name. It is very likely that the participants in our study were not able to interpret the replacement as being a replacement. Instead, they probably interpreted the advertisement as an ad without a visual metaphor”, Jochem explained.

In short, with only 100 msec, the participants did not have enough time to discover the brand name and to find out the meaning of the advertisement, like if they glimpsed the billboard while driving 75 mph on the highway.


Couch potatoes sometimes like a challenge

On the contrary, participants who had 5 seconds to look at the ads, liked the ones with no metaphor at all (e.g. only the car) and the mixed image (a fusion of the car and the rhino) most. The ads with no metaphor were, again, easier to recognize and to understand, compared to the other three versions. As for the ads with the mixed image (fusion), participants now had the time to discover the brand name, subsequently leading to the meaning of the ad, i.e. solving the puzzle! These participants rated the fusions as most interesting, and that’s not surprising when you see the advertisement with the fusion of a car and a rhino yourself!


The replacements however, depicting only the rhino, seemed too hard to solve, even within 5 seconds. Participants still did not recognize and understand the meaning of the ad, resulting in lower liking and interest ratings than as for the fusions.

Of course the researchers were proud of all their materials. I asked Jochem Aben about his favorite ad that was used in the study. “I most liked the ad with a Swiss knife that was combined with a smartphone. For some of the experimental materials it was quite obvious that non-professionals edited the advertisements. However, in the Swiss knife ad that was not the case, since it was quite easy for us to combine the two pictures. Therefore, the manipulation worked out really well in the fusion version of the ad.” A smartphone with as many functions as a Swiss knife; beautiful right?!


Keep trying, it’s fun!

Whether you are a speed devil, racing in your cool red Jeep, sometimes glimpsing billboards, or whether you are a couch potato, watching TV and reading magazines all day, sometimes coming across funny ads; you might find yourself trying to solve the puzzle. In Jochem’s words: “In general, people are eager to solve riddles, especially when the riddle contains something unexpected which is often the case with visual metaphors. People like visual metaphors, because it deviates from the straightforward messages we all know.” You will see, once you succeed, you will feel smart and proud; those ads will make your day!



Plug, I. (2015). ‘Mobieltjes met een kurkentrekker en neushoorns op wielen: een experimenteel onderzoek naar de invloed van aanbiedingstijd en complexiteit op het esthetische plezier bij visuele metaforen in reclame’. Radboud University Nijmegen.