It shouldn’t surprise Neuromarketing readers that choice of words is important when writing headlines, taglines, or copy, but brain scans show how specific words can have the same meaning but activate different areas of the brain. Emory University researcher Krish Sathian has shown that words that words related to texture, for example, activate areas of the brain associated with touch – even when their usage has nothing to do with tactile sensations. (Abstract, and an interview with Sathian.)

sensory metaphors

The study looked at phrases that involved “textural methaphors” in which words associated with texture were used in a metaphorical or figurative manner. Subjects also heard the same phrases in which a non-textural word had been used to create the same meaning. For example,

Having a bad day?


Having a rough day?

The use of “rough” in this context caused sensory areas of the brain to be activated while “bad” did not.

As I described in Adjective Power, sensory adjectives were among the most effective types in increasing sales of food items. Those words were used in a mostly literal context, like “buttery plump pasta.”

Will Sensory Metaphors Persuade?

The Emory study didn’t look at whether sensory metaphor-based language was more persuasive. It’s not much of a stretch, though, to posit that copy that lights up sensory areas of the brain (in addition to the other areas activated by non-metaphorical words) is likely to be more memorable and impactful. In addition, the study mentioned in the Adjective Power post cited earlier did connect higher sales to sensory adjectives. So, it’s definitely worth testing the effect of metaphor language in your own copy.

Writing Sensory Copy

The interesting aspect of the new research is that sensory metaphors work even when we don’t think of them as such! “Rough” in the context of a day’s experience doesn’t bring to mind surfaces like gravel or sandpaper, but our minds still make that connection. While literal sensory alternatives can be fairly obvious – substituting “freshly-cracked eggs” for “fresh eggs,” for example – it may take a little more creativity to substitute sensory words in non-sensory products. Nevertheless, by thinking of synonyms for common words in your copy you may find sensory substitutes that work just as well. Words like polished, sharp, fuzzy, slimy, heavy, bright, and many others have their origins in sensory experience but have become commonly used as metaphors. Look up key words in your copy in a thesaurus and see if you can find a sensory metaphor that will work just as well. And it’s not just simple adjectives – phrases like “green with envy,” verbs like “embrace,” and so on have literal sensory interpretations but are common metaphors as well.

It’s time to let your let your copy do the heavy lifting! (Got any good examples of sensory metaphor use, either in your copy or someone else’s? Share them in a comment!)

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