“Culture is like dropping an Alka-seltzer into a glass: you don’t see it, but somehow it does something.”
Hans Magnus Enzensberger.
Culture affects everything we do. This applies to all areas of human life, from personal relationships to conducting business abroad. By interacting within our native cultures, culture acts as a framework for understanding. However, when interacting with different cultures, this framework no longer applies due to differences between cultures.
Intercultural communication aims to help minimize the negative impact of intercultural differences by building common frameworks for people of different cultures to interact. In business, cross-cultural solutions are applied in areas such as HR, team building, foreign trade, negotiations, and website design.
Cross-cultural communication solutions are also essential for effective cross-cultural advertising. Services and products are generally designed and marketed for a national audience. When a product is then marketed to an international audience, the same national advertising campaign abroad will, in most cases, be ineffective.
The essence of advertising is convincing people that a product is for them. By purchasing it, they will receive some benefit, be it lifestyle, status, convenience or financial. However, when an ad campaign is taken abroad, there are different values and perceptions about what improves status or gives convenience. These differences make the original advertising campaign disappear.
Therefore, it is critical to any cross-cultural advertising campaign that an understanding of a particular culture is acquired. In order to highlight areas of cross-cultural differences in advertising, some examples will be examined.
Language in intercultural advertising
It may seem obvious to say that language is key to effective cross-cultural advertising. However, the failure of companies to persistently verify the linguistic implications of company or product names and slogans shows that these issues are not being adequately addressed.
The world of advertising is littered with examples of cross-cultural linguistic errors. The funniest was Ford’s introduction of the ‘Pinto’ in Brazil. After seeing sales fail, they soon realized that this was due to the fact that Brazilians did not want to be seen driving a car which means “little male genitalia.”
Language must also be analyzed to determine its cultural suitability. For example, the slogan used by computer game maker EA Sports, “Challenge everything,” raises complaints of disapproval in religious or hierarchical societies where harmonious relationships are maintained through the values of respect and non-confrontation.
Therefore, it is imperative that language is carefully examined in any cross-cultural advertising campaign.
Communication style in cross-cultural advertising
Understanding how other cultures communicate allows the ad campaign to target the potential customer in a way that they understand and appreciate. For example, communication styles can be explicit or implicit. An explicit communicator (for example, USA) assumes that the listener is unaware of the background information or issues related to the topic of discussion and therefore provides them himself. Implicit communicators (eg, Japan) assume that the listener is well informed on the subject and minimize the information conveyed on the premise that the listener will understand from the implication. An explicit communicator would find an implicit communication style vague, while an implicit communicator would find an explicit communication style exaggerated.
Colors, numbers and images in cross-cultural advertising
Even the simplest and most taken for granted aspects of advertising must be inspected under a cross-cultural microscope. Colors, numbers, symbols, and images do not translate well from one culture to another.
In some cultures there are lucky colors, like red in China, and bad luck colors, like black in Japan. Some colors have a certain meaning; green is considered a special color in Islam and some colors have tribal associations in parts of Africa.
Many hotels in the United States or the United Kingdom do not have a room 13 or a 13th floor. Similarly, Nippon Airways in Japan does not have seat numbers 4 or 9. If there are numbers with negative connotations abroad, present or package products in those numbers when advertising should be avoided.
Images are also culturally sensitive. While it is common to see photos of bikini-clad women on billboards in the streets of London, such images would cause outrage in the Middle East.
Cultural values in cross-cultural advertising
When advertising abroad, the cultural values that sustain society must be carefully analyzed. Is there a religion that most people practice? Is society collectivist or individualistic? Are you family oriented? Is it hierarchical? Is there a dominant political or economic ideology? All of these will have an impact on an ad campaign if left unchecked.
For example, advertising that focuses on individual success, independence, and an emphasis on the word “me” would be received negatively in countries where teamwork is considered a positive quality. Rebellion or disrespect for authority should always be avoided in hierarchical or family-oriented societies.
By way of conclusion, we can see that the principles of advertising also apply to cross-cultural advertising. That is, know your market, what attracts them and what their aspirations are. Cross-cultural advertising is simply about using common sense and analyzing how different elements of an advertising campaign are affected by culture and modifying them to better speak to the target audience.