Copy and poetry don’t have a lot in common. In fact, they might be more disparate in purpose than any other two types of writing. While copy functions to encourage a purchase, poetry offers a guided path, among other things, depending on the poet. Despite categorical differences, they both use metaphors to transfer meaning.
We tend to think about metaphor in terms of a seventh-grade English lesson and lump it in the same category of every other literary device. But the truth is that metaphor is much larger than literature and is commonplace in speech, text, advertisements and entertainment, even if we don’t always recognize it as such.
Metaphor, which equates one thing to another, is one of three main language devices we use to make comparisons. The other two are simile, which asserts that one thing is like another, and analogy, which takes a metaphor or simile a step further by explaining the comparison. All three can elevate copy when used well and decimate copy when used poorly. Keep reading for tips on how to tastefully employ these critical tools of comparison.
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Why Use Metaphors?
One of the best ways to engage quickly with the human mind is to paint a picture. A thoughtful metaphor does just that — creates a visualization with only a sentence or two. A metaphor can also establish a theme that acts as a framework for a piece of writing. Perhaps most useful for copywriters, a metaphorical comparison can insinuate grandiose qualities that would be difficult (or inaccurate) to state outright.
For example, 1980s advertisements said that Chevrolet was “the heartbeat of America.” If you think about that phrase for even a few seconds, your mind starts building a story around it. Before you know it, you’re associating Chevys with hardworking people in the heartland, red-blooded Americans, the lifeforce of the economy, etc. Are Chevys actually any of those things? No, and the advertisement didn’t say they were; your mind did all the heavy lifting.
When to Use a Metaphor in Copy
It’s not always easy to write copy. Many consumables are boring, ordinary and have already been made a thousand times over. As the copywriter, it’s your job to make an impression. Metaphors are perfect for that.
The Tough Sell
How do you write a product page or a marketing email for a dreary product? You might think you can make any product appealing by hitting hard on its good attributes, but that’s not always true. Sometimes you need to stop trying to make a product special and start making it something else.
What if hiring plumbing services were like giving your home a whole-body cleanse? What if buying a new HVAC system meant investing in your future comfort? Neither of these are flashy metaphors, but both are more enticing than the reality and can be drawn out for the duration of the copy.
The Complex Process
Suppose you’re writing a marketing email sequence about a new allergy medication that works twice as long as other brands. Like other antihistamines, it works by blocking the H1 receptors, preventing histamines from binding and triggering allergic reactions. Although this description is necessary and important to include, it probably won’t stick in the reader’s head.
A scenario like this is begging for a metaphor to make it more memorable. You could say the medication is a 24-security guard, a soccer goalie or any other agent of prevention, and reference the metaphor at different points throughout the piece to assist the framework. It will both elucidate a complex process and paint a picture that is easier to remember than words.
When to Avoid Metaphors in Copy
It can be tempting to use metaphors frequently in copy, but be careful. “Less is more” doesn’t begin to cover it — these tools should be used very sparingly. When you’re crafting copy, avoid the following metaphor mishaps:
- Multiple metaphors in one piece. If you’re using more than one big metaphor to support your copy’s structure, you’re doing it wrong. You need one solidifying metaphor to resonate with the reader.
- Overused metaphors and cliches. “Life is a journey” means nothing. Readers have encountered it too many times for it to hold their attention.
- Inappropriately light metaphors. Read the room. If you’re writing about funeral service offerings, there’s really no reason you need a metaphor at all, let alone a sports analogy.
- Overly complex metaphors. Any metaphor should increase understanding, not complicate the copy. If you need to explain the metaphor to explain the copy, ditch it.
There are many ways to make copy compelling without likening a process, service or product to something else. Understanding when to use literary devices and when not to use them is a matter of taste and experience, but in general, they are especially helpful in copy involving complex or dull themes.
In the world of copywriting, there’s only a small window of time to make an impression. Most consumers face a constant bombardment of advertisements and can determine very quickly whether a particular message is worth their time. No one is reading to the bottom of the third paragraph and having a think, so you have to entice them fast.
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