Metaphors Matter

Why we need luminaries

This third blog in our series on the luminary archetype explains its' important role in society. More specifically, a luminary’s role is to ‘make us aware’ and it is this goal that drives the work of many of today’s contemporary artists. One great example is the conceptual artist and political activist Ai Wei Wei whose statement of artistic purpose reinforces the important role that contemporary art can play. To quote the artist,

“An artist can only raise new questions and offer insight into social change after reflecting on the feelings of the time. I don’t see art as a highly aesthetic practice…Rather than thinking of my projects as art, they attempt to introduce a new condition, a new means of expression, or a new method of communicating. If these possibilities didn’t exist, I wouldn’t feel the need to be an artist.” 

The artist’s power to convey important social commentary through his work is why the Chinese government confiscated Ai Wei Wei’s passport. In spite of those government imposed travel limitations (now lifted), the artist was still able to produce and show art that inspires the exchange of ideas. His work challenges viewers to think about and become more aware of social and political issues and in discovering more about the world also discover more about themselves.  

From February to June 2019, The Gardiner Museum in Toronto is exhibiting some of Ai Wei Wei’s work giving Toronto viewers a chance to experience this luminary’s ‘voice’ first hand. The exhibition, titled ‘Unbroken’, features ‘Colored Vases’, a seminal work acquired by the Seattle Art Museum. In that series, the artist sourced  Han dynasty earthenware vases and dipped them in bright hues of industrial paint. Covering these iconic forms from a defining period in Chinese history, says one critic “is equivalent to tossing away an entire inheritance of cultural meaning about China.” In the artist’s own words, “by covering the surfaces with new paint, what is underneath—like history itself—is no longer visible, but is still there.”  The vases represent centuries old craftsmanship and the industrial paint into which the urns are dipped serves as a powerful metaphor for the Chinese Cultural Revolution which also sought to destroy centuries of culture.

The Gardiner exhibit of select Ai Wei Wei works touches on such important issues as identity, free speech and human rights.  At a time in history when many of us bemoan the loss of truth and truth-telling, the call of the luminary to make us aware, to encourage us to explore boundaries , to face hard truths and in doing so to effect change is an even greater imperative.  It is this imperative that makes the work of luminaries such a Ai Wei Wei so essential in our lives.

'Canadianness' and Branding

The 150th anniversary of Canada on July 1, 2017 is prompting the 'Canadianness' question for some brand builders.    The Hudson’s Bay ‘Country of Adventurers’ is one example of a lead up campaign.   To stimulate 'Canadianness' in brand building, are posting a series of blogs featuring objects that tell Canada stories.   In our work uncovering human stories, we have found objects to be profoundly evocative tools for exploration. They often serve as metaphors for lived experience and can help access unconscious thoughts and feelings.

This inaugural blog in the series, takes inspiration from the self-described ‘junk yard artist’, Patrick Amiot.   His recycled solar powered carousel commissioned for the city of Markham, evokes feelings and stories about Canadians and Canada.

The renowned artist and his collaborator, Brigitte Laurent, are known for creating whimsical sculptures that connect to their roots as Quebecois artists and Canadians.  Hockey and its players, coureurs de bois in their canoes, Mounties, moose and beavers are among the Canadian symbols that have been represented and reinvented through their art.  A humble, self-deprecating sense of humour, which we think of as typically Canadian, is always evident in the work and immediately puts smiles on viewers’ faces as it invites them into the story.

Amiot has the instincts of an anthropologist intent on teasing out the stories told by the objects or artifacts. Instead of focusing on the instrumental value of his found objects, Amiot focuses on their narrative value. To quote the artist, “ the whole purpose of my work is to glorify these objects, because they have their own spirit. This hubcap, or whatever piece of metal, from the day it was manufactured until now, has an important history. … these things lived incredible lives. If they could talk to you, they could tell amazing stories.”

Just as ‘The Pride of Canada’, a carousel made from metals collected across the country shares Canada’s story with Markham’s new immigrant community, so does the tattoo that a young man shows to help us understand his story of how it feels to be Canadian. Look for that story and more in our next blog on evocative objects of 'Canadianness'.


Advertising as Metaphor for 4 Campaigns

Here are four ads that engage you with a compelling metaphoric story.

Metaphors are about transferring associations from one experience to another.   Our brains are metaphorically hard wired which gives well-selected metaphors the power to tap into the unconscious mind, the emotions and values that trigger behaviours. 

Volvo...uses the metaphor of a beautifully rendered piece of orchestral music featuring Swedish conductor, Marie Rosenmir.  Both the conductor and Volvo passionately attend to small details to realize beauty in life.  Just as a world-class conductor uses each component of a piece of music to support the structural integrity so too does Volvo in delivering the technical beauty of the Volvo V40 R-design.

IBM . . . used ‘complex recipes’ and learning as ‘food for the brain’ to introduce super computer Watson and its ability to combine complex ideas. A food truck was hired as the ‘communications vehicle’ and taken to SXSW to ‘nourish’ developers with algorithmically created recipes. The metaphor based event created an enormous appetite with thousands flocking to eat Watson's exotic dishes hungry to learn more.

SoFi . . . uses the deep metaphor of good and evil as a disruptor financial services brand.   In the inaugural ad for this California based financial services company SoFi or Social Finance, the agency metaphorically frames traditional banks as man-made, heartless and unseeing giants. The ad taps into the prevailing sentiment about Wall Street in order to differentiate SoFi’s ‘for the people’ offering.

Ikea . . . uses the metaphor of a heavenly container to frame beds as a safe and cozy refuge from the world in this award winning ad.  A young woman is slowly dropping from a sky filled with soft fluffy clouds moving from one different shape and size bed to another until she finally ‘falls into her own bed’.  The tagline is simply ‘there is no bed like home’.  Like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz she is safe at home.

The mastery of the metaphor in all examples tells an engaging brand story and responds to deeply human desires and motivations.

Metaphor as catalyst for conversation

Last fall we conducted a study among recent university grads that explored their hopes and fears about job hunting. Recently we shared the metaphoric insights that emerged from the work with a Bishop’s University mentors and protégé group. The insights fuelled a thoughtful discussion among the protégés, some of whom are searching for their place and others for whom the process of searching is still vivid.

The visual metaphor that captured the greatest amount of attention was the image that one study participant shared of an old patchwork quilt and titled “A history reduced into patches”. Like all of the metaphors in this study, this quilt spoke to both hopes and fears and elicited a strong empathetic response.

On the one hand, the symbolism of the quilt spoke to hope since the quilt is a medium of self expression in which the quilter can bring contrasting backgrounds together to create new meaning. The hope is to look at your own eclectic job history so typical of many graduating students and to stitch together a compelling resume. On the other hand, the image felt like an unattractive quilt with no discernible pattern either in shape or color. This really connected to the fear and frustration that protégés felt with their quilting skills and an eclectic list of jobs that could lead prospective employers to ask, ‘what haven’t you done?’

Some university graduates had been fortunate enough to find a mentor along the way to help them see and communicate the patterns in their own work history. However, some painfully reflected on the fact that listing ‘what they have done’ is an unsuccessful interview strategy. Finally, there were those among the group who remain open to possibilities taking positions in industries that while never on their original radar screen are giving them an opportunity to develop skills and greater insight into themselves as employees. Bottom line, the patchwork quilt as metaphor and its association with a work history reduced into patches took the group discussion in many important directions and led not only to empathy but to ideas.