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Cross cultural advertising means more than translation. The language, style, colors, numbers
and symbols of advertising are all important factors to be considered. To outsource cross
cultural marketing to a professional located in the intended target market is an effective way to
broaden your global business.

Cross-cultural research on advertising is a relatively new field which reflects the developments
and trends of the last decades in economic and commercial activities. In recent years there has
been an evident tendency to economic integration, especially for the countries who have
reached a certain level of wealth. One of the main issues in international marketing and
advertising is whether consumers from different countries will become more and more alike or
whether the differences will remain stable or even will grow more. The question is reflected at a
decisional level by the dilemma of the standardization (globalization) of marketing and
advertising strategies or, at contrary, of their cultural adaptation to the paradigms and patterns
revealed by every single country / region. The last two decades saw a proliferation of cross-
cultural studies, research and analysis of advertising, consumer behaviour, organizational
behaviour etc. attempting to support one approach or the other.

Such studies have been extremely useful in order to test the convergence of models and
tastes in media and advertising consume, underlining common aspects and issues, differences
and maybe potential universalia. According to the theory of convergence / divergence of
consuming habits it is possible to identify a pattern of evolution, parallel to economic growth:
"initially countries converge with increased wealth but in the developed world, at a certain level
of wealth, convergence reaches a ceiling after which there is no further convergence and
differences remain stable or increase" - such differences are determined primarily by the
cultural factors. Global campaigns would be successful only in a context of cultural and
behavioural convergence between the countries were they are delivered; opposite conditions
would lead to failure. Advertising "because… is strongly culture-bound, dependent on cultural
factors such as language, values, lifestyle, communication style and media habits" is the
component of the marketing-mix most difficult to standardize.

Culture affects everything we do. This applies to all areas of human life from personal
relationships to conducting business abroad. When interacting within our native cultures,
culture acts as a framework of understanding. However, when interacting with different cultures
this framework no longer applies due to cross cultural differences.

Cross cultural communication aims to help minimise the negative impact of cross cultural
differences through building common frameworks for people of different cultures to interact
within. 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 critical to effective cross cultural advertising.
Services and products are usually designed and marketed at a domestic audience. When a
product is then marketed at an international audience the same domestic advertising campaign
abroad will in most cases be ineffective.

The essence of advertising is convincing people that a product is meant for them. By purchasing
it, they will receive some benefit, whether it be lifestyle, status, convenience or financial.
However, when an advertising campaign is taken abroad different values and perceptions as to
what enhances status or gives convenience exist. These differences make the original
advertising campaign defunct.
It is therefore critical to any cross cultural advertising campaign that an understanding of a
particular culture is acquired. By way of highlighting areas of cross cultural differences in
advertising a few examples shall be examined.

As international trade grows, getting your business to cross over and translate to global markets
means significant future growth for your company. Marketing your business and focusing your
efforts beyond traditional trade boundaries is a reality for most companies. In fact, thanks to the
advancement of digital technology it’s easier to conduct business abroad

Therefore, marketing strategies have evolved to take account of cross cultural differences so
that they may appeal to distinctly different target markets. The key is to remember that the core
of any marketing strategy, be it full color print media or TV commercials, is to encourage,
motivate and convince them to believe the benefits they can receive and therefore buy your

Nevertheless; trying to communicate your idea to those living abroad is not as easy as it sounds.
Some concepts may be acceptable, while others may be annoying if not appalling or distasteful
for most.

Cross cultural marketing therefore, means successfully incorporating characteristics to

complement the values, traditions, and perceptions of your target market, whether locally or
abroad. But how does someone achieve this? For some, they employ the services of an
experienced international marketing company but for others that simply do not have the budget;
they may consider online outsourcing to a professional located in the intended target market. By
employing a professional who already understands what works and what doesn’t you may be
able to avoid and easily negotiate some of the following pitfalls of unsuccessful marketing
• Language in Cross Cultural Advertising

• Communication Style in Cross Cultural Advertising

• Colours, Numbers and Images in Cross Cultural Advertising

• Cultural Values in Cross Cultural Advertising


• Translate correctly

• Stay neutral

• Adapt your product

• Know your markets

Language in Cross Cultural Advertising
Different language, different words, and different accents all contribute to the success or failure
of your marketing campaigns. How can your target market appreciate your business and
products and services if they cannot understand what you’re trying to say in the first place?

Most people fail to realize how language can affect a marketing campaign. This is apparent in
various tag lines and slogans in marketing material and other print ads. Therefore, one must be
conscious that otherwise regular and harmless words can easily be misinterpreted from one
culture to the next. It may seem somewhat obvious to state that language is key to effective
cross cultural advertising. However, the fact that companies persistently fail to check linguistic
implications of company or product names and slogans demonstrates that such issues are not
being properly addressed.

The advertising world is littered with examples of linguistic cross cultural blunders. Of the
more comical was Ford’s introduction of the ‘Pinto’ in Brazil. After seeing sales fail, they soon
realised that this was due to the fact that Brazilians did not want to be seen driving a car
meaning ‘tiny male genitals’.
Language must also be analysed for its cultural suitability. For example, the slogan employed
by the computer games manufacturer, EA Sports, "Challenge Everything" raises grumbles of
disapproval in religious or hierarchical societies where harmonious relationships are maintained
through the values of respect and non-confrontation.
It is imperative therefore that language be examined carefully in any cross cultural advertising

Communication Style in Cross Cultural Advertising

Understanding the way in which other cultures communicate allows the advertising campaign to
speak to the potential customer in a way they understand and appreciate. For example,
communication styles can be explicit or implicit. An explicit communicator (e.g. USA) assumes
the listener is unaware of background information or related issues to the topic of discussion
and therefore provides it themselves. Implicit communicators (e.g. Japan) assume the listener is
well informed on the subject and minimises information relayed on the premise that the listener
will understand from implication. An explicit communicator would find an implicit
communication style vague, whereas an implicit communicator would find an explicit
communication style exaggerated. Generally communication should be straight forward and to
the point. But when attempting to relate to different cultural markets each respond to a different
style and understanding the style that is appropriate is vital in creating an effective marketing
campaign for any business. This difference can be seen when comparing US search engine
homepages like to those of China such as While one has a simplistic
straightforward layout, the other utilizes every inch of the webpage.
Colours, Numbers and Images in Cross Cultural
Even the simplest and most taken for granted aspects of advertising need to be inspected under
a cross cultural microscope. Colours, numbers, symbols and images do not all translate well
across cultures.

In some cultures there are lucky colours, such as red in China and unlucky colours, such as
black in Japan. Some colours have certain significance; green is considered a special colour in
Islam and some colours have tribal associations in parts of Africa.
Many hotels in the USA or UK do not have a room 13 or a 13th floor. Similarly, Nippon
Airways in Japan do not have the seat numbers 4 or 9. If there are numbers with negative
connotations abroad, presenting or packaging products in those numbers when advertising
should be avoided. Also these elements play significant roles for marketing. In several cultures
for example, even the most ordinary shade of red can translate a different message, red may
mean luck in China, but can mean death in another country. Likewise the numbers 13 and 4, for
example mean different things in the US and Japan. The number 13 is a very unlucky while the
number 4 means death. Symbols just like images can also convey a variety of meanings and it is
advisable to do thorough research before using them.

Images are also culturally sensitive. Whereas it is common to see pictures of women in bikinis
on advertising posters on the streets of London, such images would cause outrage in the Middle

The bottom line is that to create ads that appeal to different cultures, remember to be aware of
the principles and traditions observed in each culture. The best way to accomplish this is
identify your target markets needs, wants and desires. Once you are able to do that, cross
cultural advertising will become a breeze.
Cultural Values in Cross Cultural Advertising
When advertising abroad, the cultural values underpinning the society must be analysed
carefully. Is there a religion that is practised by the majority of the people? Is the society
collectivist or individualist? Is it family orientated? Is it hierarchical? Is there a dominant
political or economic ideology? All of these will impact an advertising campaign if left

For example, advertising that focuses on individual success, independence and stressing the
word "I" would be received negatively in countries where teamwork is considered a positive
quality. Rebelliousness or lack of respect for authority should always be avoided in family
orientated or hierarchical societies.

By way of conclusion, we can see that the principles of advertising run through to cross cultural
advertising too. That is – know your market, what is attractive to them and what their
aspirations are. Cross cultural advertising is simply about using common sense and analysing
how the different elements of an advertising campaign are impacted by culture and modifying
them to best speak to the target audience.

And some more differences in cross-cultural communication

styles to consider…
"Consider the story of an American executive who was designated to deliver a formal
presentation at a Japanese conference. During her presentation, the woman became acutely
aware of a man in the audience who proceeded to make strange faces at her. Following the
conclusion of her presentation, the woman voiced her disapproval to the Japanese hosts. And
while an apology was immediately provided, it was discovered that the man in the audience had
not intended to offend the American speaker. He simply became so fixated on her facial
gestures that he inadvertently began imitating her. Should this story be considered an isolated
incident of a simple misunderstanding or is this a prime example of everyday
miscommunication between cultures? Many experts would support the second conclusion.

"Most of the problems caused by cross-cultural clashes are usually the result of the failure by
some or all parties involved to recognize and account for differences in culturally-based
communication styles. They assume that all peoples communicate using the same set of modes
and rules (many of which, like body language styles, are unconsciously held). For example,
numerous professionals from the US make the mistake of assuming that all people want to be
spoken to informally, just as they assume that simple body gestures strike the same chord in any

culture, or the notion that an openly frank style of negotiating is most appreciated.
"We should first realize that there is no such thing as a universal form of communication. Take
the simple gesture of a smile. It is not unusual for Americans to exchange smiles with complete
strangers. We smile at people on the street, at the airport, in restaurants, shopping malls and so
on. We consider it a friendly gesture. However, in other cultures a smile can take on a
completely different meaning. A smile can be considered insulting or it can signal
embarrassment. Many Americans fail to realize that common gestures such as shrugging one's
shoulders or scratching one's forehead can be completely misinterpreted by someone from
another country.

"Each culture has its own rules of communication. A French executive would probably be
offended if a new acquaintance were to address him by his first name. Giving the "thumbs up"
signal in Australia is impolite. And a display of frankness so common to Americans perpetuates
the Japanese impression that the American people exhibit a lack of discipline. Even though such
cultural collisions often elicit negative feedback, they rarely provoke extreme hostility. Instead,
committing a cultural taboo is usually regarded as improper, discourteous, or disrespectful. The
individual who has the misfortune of committing the taboo is "rewarded" with expressions of
anger or flat-out silence, which in turn can be misinterpreted. Such mishaps in communication
almost always serve to diminish one's credibility.

"Usually, cross-cultural gaffes stem from misjudging situations that involve mingling and
communicating with others. These include: the dress code for appointments, the manner in
which we introduce ourselves and greet others, expressing thanks to the hosts as well as proper
etiquette for the presentation of gifts. While the majority of Americans consider such events to
be very routine, the fact remains that the interpretation of these social commitments varies from
country to country. If we fail to educate ourselves in advance as to what is and what isn't
acceptable, then we prime ourselves for unintentional embarrassment, possibly at the worst
given moment.

"Miscalculating the pertinence of cross-cultural communications can be counter-productive at

best, or abysmal at worst. Cultural differences with regard to eye contact, when it is acceptable
to smile, and name protocol for addressing foreign counterparts are all qualities that
dramatically impact all angles of negotiation and interpersonal communication. For example,
the word "no" is a response that the Japanese tend to avoid altogether. As strange as it may
seem, if they are not optimistic about a given proposal, rather than tell you in so many words,
they may choose to make a counter inquiry, they may avoid eye contact with you, or they may
simply choose to walk away. Their answer is for all practical purposes spelled out in their
behavior. Obviously, this can be very frustrating to American negotiators who are used to a
straight forward "yes" or "no." Understanding and accepting cultural differences is critical if
one expects to be successful in an overseas assignment."
Advertising has evolved over the years with more sensitivity to culture, and more awareness to
cultural diversity.
• Know your markets
What is acceptable in one culture may be frowned upon in another. In 2003, Mattel Barbie dolls
were outlawed in the Middle Eastern country of Saudi Arabia because the doll did not conform
to the ideals of Islam. An alternative doll named Fulla was designed to be more acceptable to an
Islamic market… though Fulla is not made by Mattel Corporation.
In Iran, Sara and Dara dolls are available as an alternative to Barbie and Ken. The Muslim dolls
with modest clothing and pro-family backgrounds, have been developed by a government
agency to promote traditional values.

• Adapt your product

Don't assume every country eats cold cereal. Even the slightest change to adapt your product
can make a world of difference. When Kellogg's started producing Cornflakes in India, they
failed to realize that Indians start their day with something warm. Something cold, like cold
milk on cereal, is considered a shock to the system. And like Homi Bhabha, an Indian cultural
critic says “If you pour warm milk on Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, they instantly turn into wet
paper”. Kellogg’s ended up pulling their stocks from shelves and re-engineering Cornflakes so
they’d stand up to warm milk.

• Stay neutral
When marketing to the general public, try to stay neutral. Have your marketing and advertising
material reviewed by cross cultural specialists. This will ensure your advertisement does not
offend a specific culture. In May 2008, Dunkin’ Donuts pulled an ad featuring Rachael Ray off
the air because of outrage over the black and white scarf she wore in the commercial. Critics
say the scarf looks like a Kaffiyeh, which is a type of scarf some think is now said to symbolize
murderous Palestinian jihad. Because of the controversy over the scarf, the Dunkin' Donuts
chain stopped airing the commercial.

• Translate correctly
If your entire advertisement lies on language, make sure the translation is correct! A rather
obvious tip known all too well by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently. Just this
month, Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met to discuss a range of
issues. As a kind gesture, Clinton handed Lavrov a gift - a "reset button" - which symbolized
the Obama administration hoping to reset U.S. relations with Moscow… trouble was, the
translation was wrong! The word on the button was "peregruzka", which means “overloaded” or
“overcharged”. The Russian word for reset is “perezagruzka”….Oops! Not exactly the meaning
they were going for.
Many of us may have heard of these infamous errors made by multinational corporations when
translating brands or slogans abroad. Language, of course, is only one of many cultural barriers
you may have to bridge with your partner organization. We hope this list will entertain you
while giving important insight on the potential pitfalls of cross culture communication and
serving as a reminder of the importance of a good sense of humor! American and Canadian
groups may need to explain to their international partners some of the finer meanings of certain
words used below.

• When Kentucky Fried Chicken entered the Chinese market, to their horror they discovered
that their slogan "finger lickin' good" came out as "eat your fingers off"
• Chinese translation also proved difficult for Coke, which took two tries to get it right. They
first tried Ke-kou-ke-la because when pronounced it sounded roughly like Coca-Cola. It
wasn't until after thousands of signs had been printed that they discovered that the phrase
means "bite the wax tadpole" or "female horse stuffed with wax", depending on the dialect.
Second time around things worked out much better. After researching 40,000 Chinese
characters, Coke came up with "ko-kou-ko-le" which translates roughly to the much more
appropriate "happiness in the mouth".
• Things weren't much easier for Coke's arch-rival Pepsi. When they entered the Chinese
market a few years ago, the translation of their slogan "Pepsi Brings you Back to Life" was a
little more literal than they intended. In Chinese, the slogan meant, "Pepsi Brings Your
Ancestors Back from the Grave".
• But it's not just in Asian markets that soft drinks makers have problems. In Italy, a campaign
for "Schweppes Tonic Water" translated the name into the much less thirst quenching
"Schweppes Toilet Water".
• The American slogan for Salem cigarettes, "Salem – Feeling Free," got translated in the
Japanese market into "When smoking Salem, you feel so refreshed that your mind seems to
be free and empty."
• General Motors had a perplexing problem when they introduced the Chevy Nova in South
America. Despite their best efforts, they weren't selling many cars. They finally realized that
in Spanish, "nova" means "it won't go". Sales improved dramatically after the car was
renamed the "Caribe."
• Things weren't any better for Ford when they introduced the Pinto in Brazil. After watching
sales go nowhere, the company learned that "Pinto" is Brazilian slang for "tiny male
genitals." Ford pried the nameplates off all of the cars and substituted them with "Corcel,"
which means horse.
• When Braniff translated a slogan touting its upholstery, "Fly in Leather," it came out in
Spanish as "Fly Naked."
• Sometimes it's one word of a slogan that changes the whole meaning. When Parker Pen
marketed a ballpoint pen in Mexico, its ads were supposed to say "It won't leak in your
pocket and embarrass you." However, the company mistakenly thought the Spanish word
"embarazar" meant embarrass. Instead the ads said "It won't leak in your pocket and make
you pregnant."
• Foreign companies have similar problems when they enter English speaking markets.
Japan's second-largest tourist agency was mystified when it expanded to English-speaking
countries and began receiving requests for unusual sex tours. Upon finding out why, the
owners of the Kinki Nippon Tourist Company changed its name. The company didn't change
the name of all its divisions though. Visitors to Japan still have the opportunity to take a ride
on the Kinki Nippon Railway.
• Coors put its slogan, "Turn It Loose," into Spanish, where it was read as "Suffer From
• The Dairy Association's huge success with the campaign "Got Milk?" prompted them to
expand advertising to Mexico. It was soon brought to their attention the Spanish translation
read "Are you lactating?"
• Scandinavian vacuum manufacturer Electrolux used the following in an American
campaign: "Nothing sucks like an Electrolux"
• Clairol introduced the "Mist Stick," a curling iron, into Germany only to find out that "mist"
is slang for manure.
• An American T-shirt maker in Miami printed shirts for the Spanish market which promoted
the Pope's visit Instead of "I Saw the Pope" (el Papa), the shirts read "I Saw the Potato" (la