Cross-Cultural Advertising: 4 Tips that will prevent Faux-Pas

cross cultural advertising

Consumers are spread all over the world, and societies are becoming more and more mixed and multicultural. This aspect just can’t be ignored by firms when creating products, and of course, when creating advertisements. Here’s the reason why cross-cultural advertising exists, and its importance is ever increasing.

What does Cross-Cultural Advertising Mean?

Cross-cultural advertising simply consists of advertising a service or a product in order to reach many different cultures simultaneously.

Sometimes it may be confused with other types of advertising. For example, cross-cultural advertising is different from multicultural advertising: in fact, the latter consists in creating advertisements with the clear purpose of targeting only a particular ethnic segment, for example, people belonging to a specific country, a specific geographic area and so on. This advertising style is quite common in the United States, where the most represented targets are usually African-American, Hispanic and Asian ethnic groups.

But cross-cultural advertising may be considered the opposite: its aim is to send a message that everyone can understand and appreciate.

This objective is very complex, and it sometimes may be very risky, too: the advertising world is full of examples of firms, even very well-known firms, which have made terrible gaffes through advertisements without being informed before about the target culture.

It’s obvious that an advertisement which has performed very well in one country may not have the same success in a different country. It can sometimes be a real disaster, triggering the risk of damaging the image of the firm. The danger may concern many aspects: often it can originate from using improper language, sometimes it can be just caused by the use of a certain specific number or colour. In fact, sometimes it is necessary to make some small changes to the original version of the ad in order to adapt it to a certain target and to avoid unpleasant results.

The most important thing to do when putting in place effective cross-cultural advertising is to get informed: don’t ever hesitate to consult local experts or speak to native people, in order to reach a broad knowledge of all cultural aspects.

Here are the 4 main when marketing abroad:

Express yourself in the Target Language

This is maybe one of the most sensitive aspects to be considered when operating in a cross-cultural environment. In fact, if not properly managed, language can be a huge source of misunderstanding: a word which is completely neutral in a certain language can be offensive or even obscene in another one. It is important to consider the fact that the language, of course, doesn’t have to be literally translated: if in a foreign language a message is more effective if expressed in a different way, don’t hesitate to change the meaning.

If a message is more effective when expressed in a different way, don’t hesitate to change the mean

Also within the same language, there may be different dialects with different nuances that have to be taken into account; so, if you need a text to be translated, always get the help of a professional translator, and always have someone review the translation.

Another aspect to be considered is related to the communication style: for instance, the more the culture is a low-context one, the more the language will have to be direct and explicit. It is also important to understand whether specific customers prefer to be addressed through emotional or more rational channels, and which is the best way to have them involved.

Be Aware of Social Norms

In all cultures, people are offended if they see that their own social norms are not being respected. In order to avoid this, it is first of all important to investigate all the taboos pertaining to a certain culture: people from certain religions, for instance, don’t accept jokes related to their belief. At the same time, references to politics and other social aspects in advertisements can be appreciated by some groups, tolerated by others and rejected by others.

Before preparing an advertisement, it is also useful to check if the society is more inclined to individualism or collectivism, which are the predominant ideologies, habits and so on.

Pay Attention to the Visual Factor

Obviously, a very important role in advertising is imagery. Also, in this case, the crucial idea is always the same: never take anything for granted. An example is useful to clarify this:  in countries characterized by a “Western culture” black is the color that represents death, whereas in some Eastern cultures this concept is related to the white.

Of course, it’s not just a matter of colours: any kind of image or scenario may be interpreted in a different way by different people, according to their cultural perception of life. Sometimes even small details, like a number appearing in an advertising, can influence the consumer: people from the United States are negatively influenced, for example, by seeing the number 13 displayed.

Never forget the different roles played by gender, age, and personal conditions within different countries, cultures, and religions.

Choose the Media Carefully

Last but not least, we have to consider that each culture has a different behaviour relating to the use of media. In order to produce an efficient cross-cultural advertisement campaign, it is important to know each culture’s habits concerning media and to be sure to target the right one. You will find people from some cultures spending a lot of time watching television, others surfing the net all day long and others reading often traditional newspapers. Targeting the right media is one of the best ways to obtain excellent results without throwing money away.

3 Ad Faux Pas: When Marketing Goes Wrong

Sometimes, even after a lot of research, errors can be made. It happens.

This is certainly the case for some advertising campaigns which didn’t take into account all the aspects we mentioned, which resulted in gaffes for certain countries; in fact, many giant and well-known firms can make errors in this complicated environment. After, the error has to be fixed properly, which may not always be simple: the reconstruction of the company`s reputation may take a very long time.

1. The case of Fiat and Richard Gere

Some years ago Fiat, the Italian producer of automobiles, launched an advertising campaign in which Richard Gere was driving a car in Tibet, directed to the former residence of the Dalai Lama. It was a clear reference to support Tibet’s independence, and for the Chinese public it was a double gaffe: in fact, that actor was known for his support of the Dalai Lama, and Chinese people didn’t like him at all. Public dissatisfaction was quite strong, and Fiat lost sales in China for this reason, notwithstanding the public excuses made by the company later on.

2. The case of Pepsi in China

When Pepsi was launched in China, the advertising slogan they adopted was “Pepsi brings you back to life”. This was a typical gaffe deriving from the use of literal translation: in fact, that expression was perceived with the meaning “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave”. Not such a brilliant idea.

3. Pepsi in South East Asia

Colours also affect the effectiveness of advertising and marketing abroad, because of their different perceptions across cultures. A clear example of this is given again by Pepsi when this firm decided to change the colour of its vending machines in the South East Asia area from dark blue to ice blue, it lost part of its sales, due to the association made by local people between that colour and death.

Using these useful tips will help you avoid unpleasant surprises when advertising a product abroad, especially in a country with a very different cultural environment. The most relevant point when addressing other cultures is to remember that culture affects even the smallest of actions and reactions, and it should never be taken for granted. The best advice is to always try to be open-minded, and be cautious when dealing with other cultures.


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ECN Team
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