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 1.0. A preliminary approach to schema theory in advertising

Besides psychological and social issues, approaching advertising from the point of view of schema theory is an attempt at demonstrating that the  “sub-literary” status of advertising is not a mere post-modern label attached to a peripheral discourse. Schema theory will provide a framework in which an appropriate analysis of advertising will clearly reveal the existence of “recuperative”, “reformed” advertisements. In Vestergaard and Schrøder’s definition, the “recuperative” and “reformed” ads are stereotype and ideology disruptive (Vestergaard and Schrøder 1985: 163). An analysis of the text worlds projected by an increasing number of schema-refreshing ads mirrors a strong tendency of progressive deconstruction of ideologised clichés, tendency which primarily signals that the label “sub-literary genre” is not gratuitous.

Although the complexity advertising displays at all levels is proof enough of its being intellectually worthwhile, its social function still constitutes a strong psychological obstacle preventing it from acquiring a high status among various discourse types. Although still patronisingly assigned a satellite-like position revolving around the literary canon, the tentative rehabilitation of discourse type which gradually wins over critics and analysts is perceived in terms of a heretical attitude aimed at subverting and disrupting the solid ground of “ literature”.

There is no way – to many critics – in which a discourse whose first determination that comes to mind is “commercial” might be placed in close vicinity of the sacramental literary canon, by being described as “ (sub) literary” itself. Such a “commercial” discourse is analysed away as bound within the cultural model of selling which it never transgresses, and denied the innovative latency that only literary discourses allegedly incorporate. Literature is felt to typically reflect conflicting, innovative, refreshing attitudes towards people and the world, while the discourse of advertising is taken to primarily rely on and reinforce stereotypical assumptions about the world. As Cook points out (1994), although ads often display linguistic deviation and patterning, their appeal to linguistic experiments is not taken to correspond to any deviation from pre-established, shared patterns of background knowledge the readers are likely to develop. Experiments at the linguistic level of the discourse of advertising (also analysed by Myers 1992) are not acknowledged as “correlatives” of potential stereotype disruption and schema-deviation.

This paper intends nevertheless to reveal how a constantly growing number of ads do provide stereotype deconstruction and justify their positive description as a schema refreshing sub-literary genre:

This recuperative capacity of advertising can be defined as its capacity to assimilate or neutralise hostile attitudes, its ability to regain strength after a blow through the blow, turning it to serve its own purposes. This capacity can be directed both towards critical attacks on social phenomena such as the class society and the suppression of women and blacks, and towards criticism of advertising itself (Vestergaard and Schrøder 1985: 164).

It is one of the basic assumptions of this paper that advertising can acquire schema-refreshing properties through a systematic use of innovative metaphors. Basic conceptual metaphors which rely on obvious and conventional similarities between two domains, will reflect, reiterate and reinforce the readers’ background knowledge, and the text of the ad incorporating them will be perceived as familiar and unchallenging by virtue of promotion of stereotypical information. On the other hand, innovative metaphorical mappings lead to a (partial) restructuring of the domain of the primary subject and are likely to innovate and refresh the readers’ background knowledge. The ad text involving such metaphors will be perceived as challenging, unfamiliar and unconventional.

Before proceeding with the investigation, it is necessary to define the basic concepts schema theory operates with as well as to comment upon their evolution.

1.1. Basic concepts of schema theory

Text-worlds are constructed through a constant interaction between the readers prior knowledge and the language of texts. The readers’ perception of an advertisement crucially depends on the way in which their background knowledge is reinforced or challenged in the process of interpretation.

Cognitive psychology and artificial intelligence research – under the general heading of schema theory approach the processing of text worlds by developing models of the organisation of human knowledge. As preliminary examples, consider the two ads discussed as follows.

Their being acts of communication praising the good qualities of products issues by the same firm – Canon – sheds light on their different modes of approaching the readers and of dealing with their schemata. The first ad is largely conventional, building a familiar, unchallenging text-world, becoming prototypical of a certain kind of “lecturing”, explanatory ads which invoke authoritarian opinions about their certified products. The reader is unlikely to find anything disturbing in this hard-sell ad, which not only preserves and employs pre-existent cognitive schemata, but also reiterates and reinforces them. This Canon ad confirms the reader’s expectation of schema activation within the discourse type “ad” expectation which could be formulated in a nutshell as: “ Our product x is the best of range of similar products. Buy it as fast as you can”. The body-copy itself contains many triggers of pre-existing schemata such as: “America’s most popular copier”,  “being number one”, “most outstanding copier” etc.

However, when it comes to Canon Personal Copier one cannot help noticing that there is something quirky about this ad, starting with the headline: “Having a Canon personal copier at home can save your marriage”. The headline reflects a combination of incongruent schemata The PHOTOCOPIER schema and THE MARRIAGE schema, aimed at arousing interest: “What does marriage have in common with a personal copier?” is the first commonsensical question that comes to mind when processing the headline. The reader, whose curiosity has been aroused by this incongruent interplay of MARRIAGE and BUYING schemata, will then process the whole body-copy to arrive at a definite conclusion, which is as usual, quite simple: Canon Personal Copier never fails (which entails: “other personal copiers do”), Canon Personal Copier is safe – it never jeopardises your marriage (which entails: “other personal copiers may (have) endanger(ed) your private life because of the defectuous way they work provoking thus (fatal) misunderstandings”).

The processing of the text of this ad results in a change of pre–existing schemata, an idea which is ratified and reinforced by the slogan: “Nothing but originals” – a paradoxical emblem for a copier. The reader’s schema of owing and using a personal copier is challenged during the process of interpreting the text-world, a process which results in enriching and even refreshing the respective text-world: “A personal copier is marriage-protective and originals-producing”. The ad assumes that readers have a certain amount of knowledge about a copier and the way it works. There are specific areas of background knowledge or schemata that are relevant to the under standing of the text world projected by the ad. Some highly predictable components of background knowledge (employed in the previously analysed ad) turn out to have been replaced by very different ones in the text-world of this ad  (including the visual text world). A theory of the organisation of knowledge and of its use in comprehension can help to explain the various ways in which text-worlds projected by advertising are perceived: familiar, conventional, disturbing, surprising, outraging, challenging, soothing, etc.

Schema-theory has its origins in the Gestalt psychology of the 1920s (cf. Head 1920) and 1930s (cf. Bartlett 1932). Its basic claim is that comprehension crucially depends on the activation of prior knowledge. According to Guy Cook:

… a new experience is understood in comparison with a stereotypical version of similar experience held in memory. The new experience is then processed in terms of its deviation from the stereotypical version, or conformity to it (Cook 1994: 9).

The adoption of schema-based models of comprehension by cognitive psychologists and artificial intelligence researchers has led to the appearance of a plethora of alternative terms for schema. Frame was introduced by Marvin Minsky’s work (1975) on visual perception to designate stereotypical knowledge about settings and situations (e.g. knowledge about different types of rooms). Scenario was used by Sanford and Garrod (1981) to generally designate cognitive representations in semantic memory. Script is a term belonging to Schank and Abelson (1977) meant to encompass knowledge about sequences of related actions used in the comprehension of complex events (e. g. knowledge about going to a restaurant). Cook also mentions global concepts and encyclopaedic entries (1994: 20) as alternative terms for schemata.

Since schema seems to be the widest-spread general term in discourse analysis and applied linguistics, “capable  of  referring  to  all types of postulated knowledge structures” (Cook 1994: 20), I will also adopt it in further analysis.

According to Elena Semino, the term schema is generally used to refer to “a portion of background knowledge relating to a particular type of object, person, situation or event” (Semino 1997: 124). The conceptualisation of schema as a mental representation goes back to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, where the term is used to refer to mental organisation patterns that help in the process of achieving knowledge and experience.

The origin of modern schema-theory is attributed to the British psychologist Frederick Bartlett who in turn attributes the term schema to an earlier neurologist, Head. A Gestalt psychologist, Bartlett emphasised the idea that perception creates a whole out of otherwise disparate parts. In Semino’s words, Bartlett “showed that perception and memory are not simply reduplicative, but constructive” (Semino 1997: 126).

The minimal unit of prior knowledge is the schema, which Bartlett defines as:

… an active organisation of past reactions, or past experiences, which must always be supposed to be operating in any well-adapted organic response (Bartlett 1932 : 210 quoted in Semino 1997 : 127).

Bartlett formulated the basic principle of schema-theory: that comprehension depends on the activation of background knowledge and applied it to language comprehension in Remembering (1932) postulating another principle of paramount importance: that a text is interpreted with the aid of a knowledge structure activated from memory, capable of providing details which are not explicitly stated:  

All people who have at any time been concerned with the nature and validity of everyday observation must have noticed that a good deal of what goes under the name of perception is, in the wide sense of the term recall […]; the observer […] fills up the gaps of his perception by the aid of what he has experienced before in similar situations, or […] by describing what he takes to be ‘fit’ or suitable for such a situation (Bartlett 1932: 14, quoted in Cook 1994: 16) (emphasis mine).

Schema-theory can consequently offer an explanation of omission, by postulating that the “default elements” of a particular schema which is activated can be taken as known. Advertising takes advantage of the “default elements” which are left out to create surprise and frustrate appropriate expectation.

The activation of schemata resulting from repeated exposure to similar objects or situations enables us to make predictions and draw inferences, which are sometimes frustrated in the process of comprehension of advertising texts. Schema theory therefore implies a postulation of meanings as “not «contained» within the text, but as constructed in the interaction between the text and the interpreter’s background knowledge” (Semino 1997 : 124 – emphasis mine).

Pre-eminently stressing the way in which schemata are proven to change and develop in the light of new experiences, Semino’s book Language and World Creation in Poems and Other Texts provides a detailed analysis of two major versions of schema theory: Rumelhart’s and Schank and Abelson’s.

The version of schema theory put forth by Rumelhart identifies three modes of schema-change:

1. accretion – involving the accumulation of new information within already existing schemata.

2. tuning – involving the modification of already existing schemata, produced by the processing of new experiences.

3. restructuring – involving the creation of new schemata when new experiences render the old ones inadequate.

Cook’s own detailed analysis of Schank and Abelson’s framework (1994) provides the basis for a new approach to “literariness”, which is redefined in close connection with the ability to create conditions for schema-change. As Cook points out, literariness can be adequately defined only in relation to the interaction between the language of texts and the reader’s prior knowledge. The necessary and sufficient conditions for identifying literariness are met when deviations at the level of language and text (text schemata) challenge / disrupt readers’ schemata and result in schema-refreshment.

In Cook’s opinion, advertisements are not considered to be “literary” because they do not display discourse deviation. Even if they do display deviation at the level of language / text, this deviation has no correlative in a deviation affecting readers’ schemata. While the literary discourse is perceived as schema-disrupting and refreshing (a notion which, according to Elena Semino, corresponds to Rumelhart’s tuning), the discourse of advertising is described as schema-reinforcing – if it strengthens existing schemata, schema- preserving – if it confirms and reflects existing schemata, or schema-adding (corresponding to Rumelhart’s notion of accretion) if it provides new information about the advertised product, which does not contradict existing schemata, but is to be gradually incorporated by them (see 1.2. ff.)

Many ads today completely satisfy Cook’s framework, by reflecting,  reiterating or reinforcing already existing (stereotypical) schemata. The next subchapter intends to analyse a few examples of such schema-reinforcing advertisements.

1.2. Metaphor and schema-reinforcement in advertising

There is enough empirical evidence pleading for the constant diminishing of the amount of schema-reinforcing, stereotypical advertisements. Readers have come to be increasingly “won over” by not only entertaining but also cliché-deconstructing discourse.

However, the discourse of advertising still heavily revolves around instantiations which not only build on pre-existing schemata, but also reinforce them, thus reiterating traditionally acknowledged systems of values and beliefs.

Conceptual metaphor, as accounted for by Lakoff and Johnson (1980), is a fundamental instrument in the organisation of our conceptual system. Grounded in our physical, bodily experience, conceptual metaphors reflect a mapping of different domains (e.g. a mapping of the source domain JOURNEY on to the target domain LIFE) which can also be regarded as a connection of schemata. The structural metaphor LIFE IS A JOURNEY actually binds together two different schemata: the LIFE schema and the JOURNEY schema, which are stored in the conceptual system and activated by certain triggers in the sensory data (pertaining either to the physical world or to the text-world). Consequently, metaphor can be seen as affecting the process of text-world creation and reception. The reader’s perception of a text-world instantiated by the discourse of advertising will crucially depend on metaphors which either connect already existing schemata or create new ones.

Since, according to Lakoff and Johnson (1980: 152), the creation of new metaphors tends to manifest itself in the domain of structural metaphors, it follows that metaphors which are most likely to be schema-reinforcing are orientational and ontological metaphors. Elena Semino proposed a schema-refreshment scale of metaphors, in terms of what Lakoff and Turner call “conventionalization” cline  (Lakoff and Turner 1989: 55). In suggesting that metaphors differ along a variety of dimensions, which are best captured in scalar terms, Lakoff and Turner define the “conventionalization” cline as related to the degree to which a certain mapping is “automatic, effortless and generally established as a mode of thought among the members of a linguistic community” (ibid.).

The schema-refreshment scale proposed by Elena Semino is similar to that of Lakoff and Turner, but specifically aims at capturing different cognitive effects brought about by metaphors, “ more specifically, the varying amounts of potential for cognitive change associated with different metaphors” (Semino 1997: 207).

The schema-reinforcing pole of the scale proposed by Semino comprises the so-called “conventional metaphors”, metaphors relying on mappings which are generally accepted and unconsciously used by the speakers of a certain community. Schema-reinforcing conventional metaphors may be regarded as including Lakoff and Johnson’s orientational and ontological metaphors, as well as conventional, commonly accepted structural metaphors like ARGUMENT IS WAR, LIFE IS A JOURNEY or PEOPLE ARE PLANTS. The schema-reinforcing pole would comprise what used to be traditionally assigned to the “ dead metaphors” category.

The schema-refreshing end of the scale proposed by Semino comprises novel metaphors, which “carry more potential for schema-refreshment, since they establish new connections between domains”(Semino 1997: 207).

Schema-refreshing metaphors may be taken to refer to Lakoff and Johnson’s novel structural metaphors. Lakoff’s and Johnson’s example of such a metaphor is the innovative metaphor LOVE IS A COLLABORATIVE WORK OF ART, which differs from other conceptualisations of LOVE (LOVE IS WAR, LOVE IS MAGIC, LOVE IS MADNESS), already conventionalised and internalised by the speakers of a particular community.

   Metaphors therefore occupy different positions on the schema-refreshment scale: “they may either reflect pre-existing similarities or force interpreters to find new ones, thereby creating the conditions for at least a temporary reconceptualization of the target domain” (Semino 1997: 213).

   The text-worlds projected by many ads cluster at the schema- reinforcing end of Semino’s scale, by exploiting obvious and conventionally accepted metaphorical mappings between different domains. Thus, they are not recognised as “literary” since they do not induce any change of schemata in the readers’mind. The following ad may be assigned to the category of        schema-preserving ads (cf. Cook 1994), because of its confirmation and reflection of existing schemata. This ad is yet another example of what Adam Lury calls “explanatory” discourse of advertising. The whole body-copy runs in this sermon-like pattern, lecturing the reader on the properties of a certain product – “Interplak Home Plaque Removal Instrument” – and preserving the stereotype of the commodity as the outstanding representative of “omnipotent technology”. The schemata this ad activates are not conflicting and therefore less likely to produce a change in the readers’ representations of the world. Schemata are captured by the headline: “ How Can a Person Who Puts Such High Technology on His Feet, Put Low Technology in his mouth?” (emphasis mine) and emphasised by other linguistic triggers in the body-copy, such as: “quantum leap”, “technology for your mouth”, “state-of-the-art”, etc. The ad builds on the orientational metaphors MORE IS UP / LESS IS DOWN and preserves their essence in reformulating them as HIGH TECH IS UP / LOW TECH IS DOWN. It is interesting to notice the entertaining effect of the concept of verticality. Since MORE IS UP, you simply cannot “put LOW technology” in your mouth, without infringing upon “natural laws”: the mouth itself is UP.

An instance of what Cook calls schema-adding discourse is the following ad to be discussed, which provides information about the advertised product – Maxwell House Coffee – without conflicting with or contradicting existing schemata, that of “good-to-the-last-drop” coffee. While the preceding ad was placed in what Vestergaard and Schroder call “the ideological referent system of omnipotent technology”, the ad for Maxwell House Coffee is placed in the ideological context by advertising in order to lend cultural authority and prestige to commodities. The ideological context of history in no way contradicts existing schemata; it simply adds to and is to be incorporated into them.

A considerable yet constantly diminishing number of ads are largely schema-reinforcing, as in the case of the following ad, which not only reiterates but also strengthens the existing schemata of the “fragile, delicate fair, sex” vs. “the tough strong sex” and does so by means of both verbal text: “Strong enough for a man … but PH-balanced for a woman” and visual text, actually a visual translation of the highly conventionalised metaphors MALE IS STRENGTH / FEMALE IS FRAGILITY.

Having investigated schema-preserving, -adding or -reinforcing advertisements which may be regarded as justifying their description as       non-literary discourses, the last pages of this paper will plead for the acceptance of the “(sub)literary” categorisation of ads, on the basis of evidence as to their schema-refreshing properties.

1.3. Metaphor and schema-refreshment in advertising

Vestergaaard and Schrøder’s analysis of “reformed advertising” (1985: 163-740) formulates the issue of the schema-refreshing potential of recent ads, which attempt at “recuperating” from traditional patterns of social role assignment, by tentatively altering existing schemata. A very interesting example of “ recuperation” would be the deconstruction of gender stereotypes in the American Ms. Magazine which features a page called “One Step Forward”. According to Vestergaard and Schrøder, “ One Step Forward” pictures a selection of positive advertising images “that prove change possible and keep optimism alive” (editorial comment April 1981 – quoted by Vestergaard and Schrøder 1985: 172). “One step Forward” salutes advertisements “ that recognise the career potential of both boys and girls”, such as the one which pictures a two year old girl, accompanied by a verbal text which reads: “The future President of the Unites States deserves a nice dry place to grow up in. And there’s no drier diaper than Quilted Pampers” (ibid.).

Another very interesting category is represented by ads attempting at recuperating from consumer-criticism, which usually takes the form of emphasising the fakeness of other ads. The example Vestergaard and Schrøeder provide is an ad for Skin Care (“ She” April 1977) which turns the general distrust of the advertising institution to its advantage:

You see the advertisements with these marvellous looking models terribly slinky and with marvellous skins and you think, Oh I’ll be like that in a week so you rush out and buy it and you don’t realize they’re under three inches of make up. 

What recuperative advertising actually does is an attempt at restructuring existing schemata. The schema for “(receiving) advertising” includes an indispensable self-protective distrust concerning the advertised product. Schema-refreshing advertising aims at eliminating this distrust and consequently endeavours to disrupt existing schemata. An ad for Johnson’s Baby Shampoo (Cosmopolitan, July 1977 – quoted by Vestergaard and Schrøder 1985: 170), does not simply react to consumer criticism but adjusts to such criticism in a way which may really serve the consumer. The headline sounds the tone of a polemic reply: “Yes, we have no bananas”. The body-copy makes it clear that Johnson’s Baby Shampoo takes the consumer’s side against the ridiculous “natural wild ingredients” of soaps and other skin care products: “Nor do we go in for any other strange additives. There’s no room for them in a shampoo as pure and gentle as Johnson’s Baby Shampoo […]. Of course there will always be people who will be tempted by shampoos with weird ingredients. But for those who agree that additives are best left out, there’s Johnson’s Baby Shampoo. The one that won’t drive your hair bananas.”

Ads such as this one demonstrate that advertising gradually moves away from its status of a static ideological phenomenon. A growing number of ads accommodate their discourses in order to restructure schemata. The next ads to be discussed build their discourses on a plea for their products (i.e. cars / engines) which are metaphorically assigned not the properties of “omnipotent technology” as expected, but the properties of “ protector-of-the-natural” as the headline of one of these ads makes it clear for the reader: “Mitsubishi Motors have been awarded a prize for innovation. But the real winner is …. the Earth”. The second ad is much subtler in its intention of altering schemata. The headline has a strong relaying function, thus disambiguating the vaguer visual text, which seems to feature a cigarette held between someone’s lips, but which on close examination proves to be the exhaust pipe of a Volkswagen emerging from the bumper. As pointed out by Myers (1994), this ad is a clear instantiation of “double visual meaning” (Myers 1994: 148), punning on the idea of giving up smoking. The headline reflects both meanings: (“New Volkswagen” is a triggerer of the “car” schema, while “mild” is a triggerer of the “smoking” schema), but also introduces the issue of protecting nature.  By establishment a novel metaphorical mapping: EXHAUST PIPE IS CIGARETTE – both in the pictorial and in the verbal texts the ad aims at inculcating the belief that the “new Volkswagen” is “mild” on nature – an issue similar to that prompted by advertising “ozone / animal-friendly” products.

The above-mentioned ad for Johnson’s Baby Shampoo signals the “honesty drive” witnessed by advertising today. Products no longer claim to incorporate magical properties or to have the “slimmest price”. The latter mode of advertising is illustrated by an ad for Misty Cigarettes, whose headline – “Today’s Slims. At a very slim price” – is a clear example of a schema-reinforcing strategy. As opposed to this type of ads, a large number of “honest” ads choose to “tell the truth” about the prices of the commodities they sell, as in the case of an ad for Maglite: “Bright Ideas Come Cheap. Brilliant Ones Cost a Little More”.

As a tentative conclusion, many ads today can be said to meet the “literariness” conditions, as proposed by Cook, since they tend to alter and restructure existing schemata. The text-worlds projected by this category of ads are no longer schema-reinforcing; they no longer build on conventional metaphorical equations of products with abstract qualities, like love, freedom, happiness, youth, etc.

An ad for “The New 1997 Buick Park Avenue” metaphorically maps the domain of LOVE as secondary subject onto CAR as primary subject by the paraphrase of a linguistic cliché : “In a way, it’s as though you’ve always known that one day you’d find this car”. In opposition with this schema-reinforcing mode of advertising, an ad for TOYOTA COROLLA, although building on a similar metaphorical mapping (that of ENJOYMENT onto CAR), can be regarded as tentatively and partially altering existing schemata : “Of course enjoyment doesn’t always come from DRIVING IT”. The visual text fills in the gaps of information: “Enjoyment comes from WASHING IT as well”.

A large number of ads deserve being categorised as “(sub) literary genre”, due to the constant appeal to novel metaphorical mappings across different domains, which, more often than not, result in schema-altering. Consequently, deviation at the linguistic level can be said to sometimes find a corresponding deviation at level of the text world. It is beyond the scope of this paper to foretell that advertising will completely shift its peripheral position of a low (popular) genre to the high status of a literary genre. To paraphrase the well-known slogan of a series of ads for “Heart and Stroke Foundation”: “We’re only half way there”, many of these entertaining schema-refreshing ads “are only half way there”.




1.     Cook, G. ( 1992 ) –  The Discourse of Advertising, London: Routledge.

2.     Cook, G. ( 1994 ) – Discourse and Literature, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

3.     Forceville, CH. (1996) – Pictorial Metaphor in Advertising, London: Routledge.

4.     Hausman, C. (1989) – Metaphor and Art, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

5.     Kilbourne, J. (1993) –“Beauty… and the Beast of Advertising” in Reading Culture: Contexts for Critical reading and Writing, Diana George and John Trimbur (eds.), OUP 230 – 4.

6.     Kress, G. and Van Leeuwen, T.(1996) – Reading Images The Grammar of Visual Design, London: Routledge.

7.     Lakoff, G. and Johnson M. (1980) – Metaphors We Live By, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

8.     Lakoff, G. and Turner, M. (1989) – Beyond Cool Reason – A Guide to Poetic Metaphor, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

9.     Lury. A. (1994) – “Advertising. Moving Beyond the Stereotypes” in The Authority of the Consumer ed. Russell Keat, Nigel Whiteley, Nicholas Abercrombie, London: Routledge, pp. 91-101.

10.  Mc LUHAN, M.(1964) – “Keeping Upset with the Joneses” in Understanding Media, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

11.  MYERS, G. ( 1994) – Words in Ads, London: Arnold.

12.  Semino, E. (1997) – Language and World Creation in Poems and Other Texts, London: Longman.

13.  Steen, G. (1994) – Understanding Metaphor in Literature, London: Longman.

Vestergaard, T. and Schrøder, K.(1985) – The Language of Advertising, Oxford: Blackwell.




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