Metaphor Magic in Public Opinion

Metaphors and their associated cousins similes are incredibly useful tools. They can help break down complex concepts into easily digestible bites. Like a magic wand with a technicolor rainbow trail passing over an old grainy black and white movie, they can really paint a picture and bring to life concepts and ideas the way that straight talking may not. They are one of the reasons Obama is such a clear, engaging orator. His speeches have been analysed and he is found to be framing the economy as a person, a house and a journey, using various metaphors to simplify more esoteric economic concepts in the imaginaries of his audiences.

Metaphorical sound bites can also be catchy and serve a useful heuristic. Like having a map in your pocket to help find your way out of a maze, they make life easier in a world where we do not have the brain capacity to process every little bit of incoming information. Yet, beyond surface coating of ideas and their shortcut qualities, metaphors are able to penetrate much deeper into our psyche and shape our most seemingly preciously and deeply held beliefs and opinions. As conjurers of emotions, metaphors work alongside other socialisation and nationalisation processes that potentially help shape how whole nations see the world and which policies they support. Nowhere is this more true than in politics and the media.

Last month, the Economist reported a new study into the use of metaphors across different societies to try to find out how these shape the views held by the majority. Although the author views such research with a sceptical eye, it is not hard to see how evoking different metaphors can shape what we all believe and how we act. It is by association that we have an emotional reaction and despite what some economists may tell us, it is well established that it is our emotions that drive us, the opinions we hold and the decisions we make rather than pure rational reason.

Consider for instance that not everyone is a fan of a progressive inheritance tax, especially not those with much to leave to inherit. A progressive tax regime simply means that the percentage you are taxed increases with the size of your pot. A “Robin Hood Tax” is what proponents of such an arrangement are likely to call it to get you on their side – a sell loaded with images of fox-like gallant forest-dwelling worriers stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Surely no one can argue with that. But, how would you feel about it if someone called it the “Death Tax”? Just one little word summons into the imagination a shadowy, black cloaked skeleton figure coming to kick you when you’re down by reaping the last of what you sew with his tax scythe. It invokes so many negative images and, most importantly, emotions that you will find your first response to be a natural aversion to the idea. The “Death Tax” is exactly how abolishment of the US Estate Tax projected to cost the nation $50billion by 2012 had been repackaged by the Bush administration and other conservative politicians. It caused a wave of opinion change among, ironically, the lowest income segments of the population. At the same time Medicare and other public provision programmes were rebranded negatively as ‘socialist’, bringing old Cold War fears to the fore. Both metaphors allowed for policy changes that hurt the poorest Americans the most.

So what about some language-aided opinion forming happening right now? Take the aid debate in the UK. The Sun newspaper has launched an all out attack last week on David Cameron for the UK being the biggest international development aid spender in the world. “Overp-aid” is headlining a number of entries with a photo of the Prime Minister blamed for “blowing a fortune” in the face of domestic cuts. No discussion is offered around whether or not aid is needed, its effectiveness, strategy for implementation or who should have the final say of how the money is spent. Nor any questions raised of why the world is as it is where aid is as it is. Instead, the piece is a short half-pager of backbenchers’ emotional reactions of anger to the fact that Britain’s 0.56% of GDP overseas aid spend is the only one of the G8 countries remotely close to meeting the 0.7% target we have all agreed to. Like a metaphor for a shopping transaction, the headline word play makes you feel as if compared to others you are somehow being cheated and swindled by ‘paying’ too much for foreign aid. Or worse, likens aid to a greedy banker, unfairly and unjustifiably creaming off billions to line the pockets of overpaid aid recipients. This is presented without the fact that Britain more than any other country was built on the back of the human and physical resources drawn from its colonies and other less developed countries. Often by force.

These omissions are not inconsequential given the fact that the Sun is UK’s most widely read newspaper selling three million copies daily and its total associated media publications rank tenth in the world. With frequent amnesic absence of facts and lack of sophisticated debate about aid in the dailies, is the might of the metaphor alone steering our country’s opinion in a certain direction?

P.S. For those interested, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the former finance minister of Nigeria gives a great 20 minute talk on aid in general and specifically the future of African aid on TED.

What are your thoughts on rhetoric that steers the opinion of the public? Leave your reply below.

(*) Associated Researcher, INESAD. This post was first published on Ioulia’s new blog: The Development Roast. The author happily receives comments at the following address:



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