What happens when our metaphors fail?

Fair warning: This will be geeky, but it’s important to us in marketing. David Quammen’s new book, “The Tangled Tree”, highlights an emerging view of evolutionary science that challenges our “branching tree” metaphor of one species radiating into descendant species over time – like the branches of a tree. Specifically, he explains how – at the cellular level – life forms routinely trade genetic material between different “tree branches” … calling into question whether the “tree” is the correct metaphor at all. Among other points, Quammen argues the metaphor doesn’t represent reality and should be abandoned.

This made me think of so many other metaphors we use in marketing to help us explain difficult concepts to attention-strapped audiences. They’re all imperfect, and we know it, but where do we cross the line from “imperfect” to “damaging”? Take so-called Reverse Mortgages. They’ve been marketed to seniors as a way to “extract money from your home’s piggy bank”. The problem with that metaphor is that a home is *not* a piggy bank. You’re creating a new loan – which will need to be paid back – if not by you, then your heirs. It’s not that the financial product is “good” or “bad”, but rather that the metaphor used to explain it distorts the underlying reality and can lead people to make poor decisions.

There are no easy answers here, but reading Quammen’s book is forcing me to rethink the use of metaphors in my marketing practice.

#marketing #science

Interested in Quammen’s book? Read more here.

Jason T Voiovich

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