The use of the conceptual metaphor is a powerful tool because it reaches the very center of our way of understanding the world around us.
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Generally speaking, a conceptual metaphor is defined as a metaphor “that is so basic in the way people think about something that they fail to perceive that it is a metaphor” (“Conceptual Metaphor”, 2007). As a result, the connection, once made, is difficult to remove. The concept of the conceptual metaphor is brought forward by Lakoff and Johnson, who were building off the ideas of the Greek philosopher Aristotle. “The two scholars add a remarkable twist to the Aristotelian distinction, namely that abstract concepts are linked systematically to concrete ones via metaphor.
They refer to the result of the linkage as a conceptual metaphor” (Danesi, 2004: 107). The example provided by Danesi is particularly appropriate for considering the messages of advertising. “For example, the expression the professor is a snake is really a token of something more general, namely, the conceptual metaphor [people are animals]” (Danesi, 2004: 107).
Thanks to this deeper, innate understanding of the conceptual metaphor, we are able to replace the first domain, the professor, with any representative of the second domain, the snake. So we could say that Wendy is a Bird or boys are beasts and make the same application to the conceptual metaphor. Once the concept is understood, it is easy to apply it to real-world applications such as in the use of advertising.
In Ford’s commercial for their Escape Hybrid, a conceptual metaphor is invoked as Kermit the Frog works to capitalize on the attitudes and beliefs of parents concerned about the quality of life in their children’s future as well as those who feel responsible for the environment. The advertisement opens with an image of Kermit the Frog singing “It’s Not Easy Being Green” as he rides his bicycle over a rocky trail through brush-covered hills, paddles his way through rushing rapids through a rocky gorge, climbs a steep cliff looking over a pine-covered mountainside and finally parts the leaves of thick, bushy undergrowth to reveal the SUV. He peeks inside, giving the advertiser the opportunity to show off the interior, and then walks around to the back where he sees the word “Hybrid” stamped to the side.
The song stops as Kermit makes the observation that perhaps “I guess it is easy being green.” Then he stands there and nods his head vigorously, laughing in joy, as he stands back to look at the car while an announcer’s voice comes in to tell us this is “The 36-mile-per-gallon Ford Escape Hybrid.”
The commercial ends with a white screen and the car’s name and logo prominently displayed, along with a website address where people can learn more. The website further emphasizes the metaphor presented in the commercial as Kermit, in his guise as a news station reporter, stands by ready to walk the consumer through the various environmentally friendly and human comfort attributes of the company’s new 4-wheel drive.
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There are several ways in which this commercial works to influence the viewer. To begin with, their use of the character Kermit the Frog both conjures childhood memories for the target demographic, consumers who grew up with Kermit the frog as one of their childhood friends, as well as brings to mind thoughts of caring for the children of the world as the character is still a popular star in children’s programs. The metaphor suggested through Kermit’s journey in the landscape to the environmentally active consumer, whether through conservation or simple enjoyment and adventure, provides the consumer with a warm feeling for the commercial before the product is even in sight. They feel, for a moment, the love and admiration they felt as children for this character and begin to develop a desire to be associated with it. The song he sings seems to be the lament of the environmentally-conscious everywhere as they struggle to live a healthy, outdoorsy life while still doing the responsible thing for the environment.
At the same time, he addresses, through the symbolic trouble of his journey, how difficult it has been for those wishing to reach the far places to do so without damaging the environment.
Kermit’s travels through this environment are surrounded by the color green, introducing a great deal of symbolism that appeals to yet other conceptual metaphors. One interpretation of this journey appeals to the metaphor ‘life is a journey both in terms of the individual and of the planet. For example, as Kermit travels a rough and rocky trail on a bicycle, the trail is seen as a dark scar across the face of a beautiful green hillside.
This suggests that it’s been hard for Mother Earth to remain green with the various stresses that have been put upon her, stresses Kermit is acting out in his own struggles through the commercial.
However, the presence of so much green also begins to suggest that perhaps the world is actually full of green, just waiting for someone to recognize it. This is supported by the fact that Kermit’s activities and locations are reminiscent of several of the more popular activities people do while on vacation. Vacations, of course, represent relaxation and enjoyment, not the struggle and effort suggested in Kermit’s song. Finally, the fact that Kermit finds the SUV at the top of the mountain suggests that it was able to overcome all of the challenges he had already gone through during the space of the commercial. The way the truck is parked, on what appears to be an open glade naturally designed for the vehicle, further reduces the idea that it is harmful to the environment, not even leaving the kind of deep scar worn into the hillside by Kermit’s bike.
Not only is it environmentally friendly and frog-approved, but it is also spacious and rugged as well. By simply announcing the name and the gas mileage, the advertiser gives off the impression that this is all a person needs to know about this vehicle to make it worth buying. The metaphor that has built up between the frog and the consumer is now transferred over to the truck, making it a natural match for the buyer.
Through the use of the conceptual metaphor, a relationship is developed between the product being advertised, the spokesperson, and the consumer base that is difficult to ignore because of the depth of the relationship formed in the space of a 30-second commercial. The consumer watching the commercial quickly identifies with the frog on TV as he echoes their lament from a variety of viewpoints. From the busy city wife who works to recycle everything to the active outdoorsman who uses his weekends to participate in the activities presented, the age group being targeted recognizes Kermit as one of their childhood friends and trusted buddies and the connection between them is re-forged. At the same time, empathy for the environment is encouraged as Kermit highlights the many things there are to appreciate in nature through his song. When he finally reveals the product being advertised, his hearty approval of the truck acts as a bridge from the consumer to the truck, transferring to the truck all the positive attributes that have been suggested through Kermit and the consumer’s identification with him. This is a process that occurs under the surface of the thinking mind in the space of seconds thanks in large measure to the deep structures of cultural identification and the process of the conceptual metaphor.
“Conceptual Metaphor.” Open Politics. (2007). Web.
Danesi, Marcel. A Basic Course in Anthropological Linguistics. Toronto: Canadian Scholars Press, 2004.
“It Aint Easy Being Green.” (2006). Ford. Web.