Culture as a metaphor

Metaphors are extremely useful linguistic tools in the marketing world. Like teachers, marketers have long known that we understand new concepts and ideas more readily when they are presented as a metaphor.

In fact, a recent study cited by Science Daily proves that the use of metaphor does indeed spark more regions of the brain than language devoid of metaphor:

“New brain imaging research reveals that a region of the brain important for sensing texture through touch, the parietal operculum, is also activated when someone listens to a sentence with a textural metaphor. The same region is not activated when a similar sentence expressing the meaning of the metaphor is heard.”

But what happens when the metaphor is culturally based? Is the same level of learning achieved? Littlemore (2003) examined this idea in her study with British instructors and Bangladeshi students. Littlemore found a direct relationship between the cultural dimensions described by Hofstede (individualism/collectivism, power distance, uncertainty avoidance, and social orientation) and how culturally based metaphors were interpreted. For example:

  • Uncertainty avoidance – The expression “it doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice” was reviewed. For a low uncertainty avoidance culture like Britain, it “reflects an underlying belief that uncertainty is a good thing.” In the study, virtually all the students misinterpreted the metaphor, resulting in responses such as “government should work properly to avoid problems.”
  • Power distance – The expression “trickle down economics” was reviewed. In this case, because Bangladesh scores high on power distance, this metaphor was understood by all, resulting in responses such as “wealth is accrued at the top and takes a long time to get to the bottom.”
  • Individualism – The expression “to slowly shift the creaking apparatus of government” was reviewed. Most of the students understood that government is a large machine that has to work as one.
  • Social orientation – The expression “cut back the machinery of government” was selected for review because it seemed to reflect a view towards the relationship between government and social programs. All the students understood the metaphor as meaning that the public sector needed to be downsized. The overall feminine aspect of social orientation, i.e. caring for others, in Bangladesh did not affect their understanding, regardless of their agreement with the statement.

While this research shows that marketers need to be careful in selecting metaphors so that they are interpreted as intended, it also shows that metaphors continue to be useful and effective ways to reach your audience, even in a global environment.


Littlemore, J. (2003). “The effect of cultural background on metaphor interpretation.” Metaphor and Symbol. 18 (4), pp. 273-288.


One thought on “Culture as a metaphor

  1. Pingback: When your customers do not understand - Hotpink Websites

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