Visual Rhetoric Ad “What lies under” made by Ferdi Rizkiyanto (2011).

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In my language and semiology classes in the university, I learned that visual rhetoric was born from the rhetoric of literature. The one who noticed this was Roland Barthes in 1964, as he realized that the figures of speech as narrative techniques were being used on ads as well. Through the text by María Acaso: The visual language (El lenguaje visual), I will take you through the world of visual rhetoric, showing you the narrative techniques in the world of pictures. Visual rhetoric is very important to communicate a concept in a powerful way, and thus, if you’re interested on finding techniques to improve your communication skills, whether you are a photographer, an artist or a graphic designer, I recommend you to keep reading this article. I will be explaining this in the easiest way possible, although I do recommend you to read more about semiology/semiotics later on to get a deeper understanding of the subject.

Before getting started, I consider that it is important to remember the ‘figure of speech’ definition, as it is what makes visual rhetoric possible.

“A figure of speech or rhetorical figure is figurative language in the form of a single word or phrase. It can be a special repetition, arrangement or omission of words with literal meaning, or a phrase with a specialized meaning not based on the literal meaning of the words.”

(“Figure of speech” defined on Wikipedia).
Maria Acaso gives a similar definition to the concept of rhetoric, before starting to talk about the visual rhetoric figures:

“Rhetoric […] can be defined as the system used to transmit a different sense to the one that originally corresponds to a certain concept, existing between the different concept and the original concept some sort of connection or similarity”.

(Translated from María Acaso, 2006).
This way, visual rhetoric is shaped by thirteen main figures, which at the same time are classified into four groups according to María Acaso. I will be defining them in the next paragraphs, by making my own comments based on what I read in Acaso’s text “El Lenguaje Visual”. Let’s get to know the figures of visual rhetoric!
Visual Rhetoric Metaphor
Visual Rhetoric Analogy
Visual Rhetoric Metonymy
  1. Metaphor example on advertising visual rhetoric. By BirdLife South Africa.

  2. Analogy example on advertising visual rhetoric. Save Our Sisters Campaign.

  3. Metonymy example on advertising visual rhetoric. By Heinz.

1- Substitution.


In the world of visual rhetoric, a metaphor occurs when a visual element is substituted with another one. This substitution has to be made according to arbitrary similarities between both elements; which means the metaphor is the author’s personal statement on visual representations. A good example of a metaphor is when a character is described as a “gold-haired” person. The character does not actually have gold hair, but blonde hair, and thus a metaphor is created to describe the hair in a more romantic way.


We’re talking about an allegory when we see many metaphors at the same time. A very common case of this can be seen on religious representations. For example, gods in Hinduism are often a collection of metaphors that symbolize different qualities of the represented god, often established by conventions. We can see a precise example of this on the Abused Goddesses Lakshmi ad, although of course many other figures of visual rhetoric are also present in the picture.


This one is very similar to metaphor, except that the substitution is made by contiguity criteria. This means that the substituted element and the element that substitutes it are both related by a physical proximity or a notorious similarity. For example, to replace three kings with three crowns is a metonymy, as kings usually wear crowns.

Visual Trick.

The visual trick is a visual rhetoric figure in which something that hasn’t been represented is interpreted. In visual rhetoric, according to various authors, every linear perspective representation is actually a visual trick. Escher’s work can also be interpreted as visual tricks, as do certain paintings that represent different shapes at the same time.


This is a classic visual rhetoric figure. It is about giving human qualities to an object or an animal, making it dance or sing. It is used widely in ads and stories, such as Disney’s Cinderella.

Visual Trick visual rhetoric
Personification visual rhetoric
  1. Visual Trick example in advertising visual rhetoric. By Praktiker.

  2. Personification in advertising visual rhetoric. By Pledge.

2- Comparison.


An opposition is born when two objects are compared by what makes them notoriously different. By this, I mean that both objects are being compared because of their differences. A clear example of this would be the Ying and Yang, which features the feminine vs. the masculine; the day vs. the night.


We are facing a parallelism when the objects compared are similar. To be more specific, it is when two elements are being compared based on their similarities. An example of this would be that both Japanese people and people from Galicia, Spain, are especially good in making seafood. On ads, parallelism can be used to compare a cheetah’s speed to that of a fast car.


Gradation is a type of parallelism in which the concept of scale has been included. It is widely used on graphic designs, when there are more than two elements being compared. When a gradual change is made to transform an element into another, we are witnessing a gradation.

Opposition visual rhetoric
parallelism visual rhetoric
samadhi yoga visual rhetoric
  1. Opposition example in advertising visual rhetoric: it is shown how Lego Bricks boxes have a lesser amount of bricks than Loc Blocs.

  2. Parallelism example in advertising visual rhetoric: The camel has added power by looking like a cheetah, as does the Volkswagen with the Turbo Diesel Injection.

  3. Gradation example in advertising visual rhetoric. By Samadhi Yoga. 

3- Adjunction.


On visual rhetoric, an anaphora can be seen when an element is repeated multiple times. This repetition can happen inside the design, but it can also mean the repetition of the design itself. For example, Andy Warhol used to do this with his work, to demonstrate that art had stopped being a unique piece of work.


The anadiplosis is a figure of visual rhetoric in which the beginning and the end are represented in the same scene. In general, the dimension of time is needed to use this figure, which is why it is more common on movies and fairly uncommon on static images. However, there are static images that use anadiplosis, and that can be a very strong resource; such as the Ouroboros (the snake that bites its own tail).


This one is a fairly common figure in visual rhetoric. It is about exaggerating certain features in an unrealistic or deliberate way, in order to make a more direct statement. A good example of this is the one on the Tubrica ad, in which an elephant can be seen walking over one of the company’s products: a pipe. Here, the hyperbole is used to show the pipe’s resistance, by being able to stand an elephant walking over it. Iveco uses a similar resource with its tow, showing it’s capable of carrying anything necessary, even a heavy elephant.

Borrowing / Appropiation.

It is a borrowing when the style or the work of a different artist is used in order to make a statement. For example, Marcel Duchamp’s parody of the Mona Lisa is a borrowing; actually, it is “appropriation”.

4- Suppression.


Deleting an element that can strongly change the picture’s meaning is an ellipsis. The example María Acaso shows us is that of the elimination of a face’s features. The example shows a picture with an empty face: it doesn’t have a nose, nor does it have neither lips nor eyes, changing the meaning of the face shown to us by eliminating these crucial features.

prada visual rhetoric
Recycling Visual Rhetoric
  1. Anaphora example in advertising visual rhetoric. By Prada.

  2. Anadiplosis example in advertising visual rhetoric: Where it starts, it ends. Recycling symbol, poster made by Anton Shlyonkin.

  3. Hyperbole example in advertising visual rhetoric. Cheez-It Ad. 

Visual Rhetoric: Conclusions and final comments.

Visual rhetoric is widely used in ads, graphic design, art and photography. Without a doubt, it is a powerful tool to communicate concepts in a creative way, and it is always a good thing to study for a second and a third time the different figures of speech to give ourselves ideas on how to transmit a concept.

We have to remember, however, that visual rhetoric is a heritage from the world of literature and oral language; which is why it wouldn’t be a bad thing that a creator of images was also a passionate reader. Figures of speech can give us ideas on how to visually represent things; imagination is also unraveled when reading literature, which is why my advice is to read works of literature that contain lots of figures of speech if you’re feeling with little to no imagination.

Finally, it is important to add that the thirteen visual rhetoric techniques mentioned above are not the only ones that exist, and many of them can happen all at once, together, on a single picture. Since it is indeed a complex subject, it is important to keep studying figures of speech and to deepen your knowledge even more.

Also, if you want to check out an artist who constantly uses visual rhetoric on her photographs, I strongly recommend you to see Brooke Shaden’s work. You can also check out my fine art gallery to see how I’ve used visual rhetoric in my own body of work.

If you enjoyed this article, or you have any doubts, you’re welcome to write down a comment. I always enjoy answering!

María Acaso (2006). El Lenguaje Visual. Barcelona, Buenos Aires, México: Paidós.
Appropriation visual rhetoric
Elipsis visual rhetoric
  1. Borrowing / Appropriation example in advertising visual rhetoric. By Lipton.

  2. Elipsis example in advertising visual rhetoric: Key letters were deleted in order to deliver the message. Ad by J&B Scotch Whisky.

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yuliana guédez forgiarini

I’m interested on international and individual concepts related to human beings. Naufragia is my open diary with an emphasis on photography, design and art, as well as humanist investigation. I search and dive deep in every project until I reach its soul. I’m open for commissions and good conversations. Want to join my adventures?

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