Epidemic of Sick Metaphors

Bird flu strikes foul marketers…

There’s nothing quite like infectious laughter. From one victim to the next, it spreads like wildfire. Though the metaphor “infectious” implies illness, its use in this case demonstrates that not all illness-related metaphors are bad. Some, on the other hand, are completely sick.

Yesterday’s top headline on the MSN homepage read something like “Hybrid Fever Hits Here”. The growing threat of a bird flu epidemic here, in North America, has been the subject of much alarming press lately. If the bird flu crosses over to humans, it is said, there is no telling how devastating it may be. Everyone is waiting for this terrible headline.

Imagine my angry relief to find that this was merely a marketer’s ruse to get me to read their pap about hybrid vehicles – an advertisement packaged in brown wrapper and falsely labeled “DANGER”. Arousing our worst fears to get our attention.

I usually associate crying wolf to pranksters and starving reporters. But to make the leap to threatening one’s life in order to market one’s product is beyond irresponsible and entering reprehensible. Hiding oneself behind wordplay and metaphor ensures many will be completely misled. It brings to mind the first broadcast of the War of the Worlds.

By playing on the strong associations between the concepts “mutation” and “hybrid” coupled with “flu” and “fever”, the marketer builds a working but intentionally unannounced bridge between the infectious agent and the vehicle. By substituting “begins” with “hits”, the marketer validates the false impression brought on by the other metaphors. In other words, there are no indicia in the headline to tell readers that the sentence is figurative. Placed in a high priority “top” position for most of the day, the headline apparently meant to mislead, preying on our heightened anxiety surrounding the deadly bird flu.

This specific citing is a mere meteoric speckle in the Observatory’s vast sky, but one in which we should take pause, and make one small wish: I hope this technique isn’t catching.

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