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With the globalization of markets, advertising professionals are faced with the question whether to standardize their message internationally or to tailor it to each country’s target culture. Culture can be seen as the values shared by the members of a society. Adapting the message to the target audience enables companies to conform with cultural values, while standardizing entails the risk of violation of cultural rules. Theories such as learning theories and related empirical findings suggest that advertising is most persuasive if it conforms to recipients’ values (e.g., Teng & Laroche 2006). Further, results of a contemporary cross-cultural meta-analysis for gender stereotyping show that sex role portrayal in advertising reflects past gender-related value changes in society (Eisend 2010). In other words, advertising is (or should be) a mirror of society and the culture it is directed toward. Culture interferes with advertising in various ways. It impacts advertising objectives, message appeals, sex role portrayal, and humor.
Advertising objectives such as attracting attention or increasing purchase intention need to be adapted to the culture-specific communication style. In high-context societies such as Japan, little is explicitly stated and communication relies more on contextual cues, whereas in low-context cultures like the US, direct communication is favored. Accordingly, advertising is less persuasive in Japan than in the US. It aims at anchoring a product in the recipient’s mind rather than at direct trial.
The goal of appealing to values like adventure or freedom is to condition a product or service in such a way that the audience associates it with these values. Extensive content-analytic research on advertising campaigns across cultures indicates that the values stressed tend to correspond to the countries’ societal values, although economic and political transitions may be responsible for some contradictory results. For instance, in cultures such as Russia or Mexico, where individuals accept that power is distributed unequally, advertising appeals to status symbols more often than in egalitarian cultures like the US. Advertisements reflect self-achievement more often in individualistic cultures like France, in which individuals see themselves as detached from others, compared to collectivistic cultures like China, in which individuals’ identity is stronger linked to their social network. The opposite holds true for sociability.
Sex roles are learned during the socialization process and differ across cultures. In masculine societies like Japan, sex roles are distinct and stronger gender stereotyping in advertising can be observed compared to feminine cultures like Sweden, where sex roles overlap. However, these results are relative. For instance, even in feminine cultures, more men than women appear in professional situations, while women are more often portrayed in non-job activities. Thus, gender stereotyping is prevalent across cultures, though it has decreased over the years mainly due to developments in high-masculinity countries (Eisend 2010).
Humor plays a vital role in message creation. It is a subversive play with conventions, norms, or ideas of a society, which comes in forms such as puns, jokes, irony, or satire. Since nonmembers of the society usually do not know those conventions they cannot understand the advertisement. Hence, humor is unlikely to travel across cultures. Failed humor can even confuse or offend the audience.
Advertising may also break with societal rules. There is ample anecdotal evidence for campaigns, which on purpose or accidentally violate cultural values, for instance, by depicting unfavorable sex roles. The italian clothing company Benetton is a prominent example for its offensive campaigns. Shock advertisements, depicting, for example, a black woman as a wet nurse, and an unwashed newborn baby with the umbilical cord still attached, gave rise not only to public criticism, but also to consumer movements boycotting the company’s products.
However, when most advertisers stick to traditional values there are various motives for breaking with them. Nonconforming advertisements may be successful as they gain attention through originality, fulfill the need for novelty seeking, or appeal to transnational target groups, who want to distinguish themselves from their own culture. Further, these advertisements may target values which are desired by a society, but are not practiced. For instance, new Zealand and Sweden are rather individualistic countries with regard to the way that people act, but people in both countries seek more collectivism. Breaking with cultural rules also allows companies to intentionally position themselves as foreign.
- De Mooij, M. K. (2013). Global marketing and advertising: Understanding cultural paradoxes, 4th edn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Eisend, M. (2010). A meta-analysis of gender roles in advertising. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 38(4), 418–440.
- Müller, S. & gelbrich, K. (2014). Interkulturelles marketing [Cross-cultural marketing], 2nd edn. Munich: Vahlen.
- Teng, L. & Laroche, M. (2006). Interactive effects of appeals, arguments, and competition across north American and Chinese cultures. Journal of International Marketing, 14(4), 110–128.