With the globalization of markets, advertisers are faced with the question whether to internationally standardize their campaigns or to tailor them to each country’s target audience. This controversial issue is discussed in the so-called standardization/differentiation debate in international marketing literature. Although standardization has the advantage of saving cost, companies that stress global standardization do not necessarily perform better than others (Samiee & Roth 1992). This is because standardized advertising campaigns run the danger of misunderstanding and violating cultural rules in the target markets. Hence, cultural differences are a reason why many companies favor a more localized approach (Kanso & Nelson 2002).
Culture can be defined as the collective programming of the mind. This means that individuals of the same culture share specific values, i.e., they agree on what is considered to be desirable. Several theories (e.g., learning theories, cognitive dissonance theory, and cognitive response theory) and related empirical findings suggest that advertising is most persuasive if it conforms with what recipients consider to be desirable. Therefore, effective advertising on international markets should insure that the advertising message is consistent with the mental programming of each target group. In other words, advertising is (or should be) a mirror of the culture it is directed toward.
The following questions have do be dealt with when adapting advertising to various cultural contexts: What advertising objectives are reasonable and feasible in the target culture? What should the advertising appeal be like? What sex roles should be portrayed in the ad? How much information should the ad contain? What symbols may be used?
Research on cross-cultural advertising and marketing communication is usually based on Hofstede’s (1984) landmark study. The author identified four dimensions reflecting cultural values, namely power distance (extent to which human inequality is accepted), individualism–collectivism (degree of an individual’s social integration), masculinity (extent to which the dualism of sexes is recognized), and uncertainty avoidance (extent to which unstructured or unfamiliar situations make individuals feel uncomfortable). In a follow-up study, long-term orientation (degree of future-oriented behavior) was added as a fifth dimension.
More recently, House et al. (2004) introduced the GLOBE study (Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness), which offers a more comprehensive view on cultures. The GLOBE researchers differentiate between in-group collectivism (degree to which members of a culture are affiliated with their organizations or families) and institutional collectivism (degree to which institutions encourage collective behavior). Moreover, they identified three additional dimensions, namely assertiveness (degree to which members of a culture are assertive, confrontational, and aggressive), humane orientation (degree to which members of a culture are friendly, generous, and altruistic), and performance orientation (degree to which performance is encouraged).
Advertisers set forth specific goals to be accomplished (e.g., attracting attention, creating a certain brand image, or increasing the purchase intention of the target audience). However, these objectives have to be adapted to the degree to which advertising is accepted in different cultures. Although consumers around the world seem to perceive this marketing instrument as an inevitable part of everyday life, recipients in some societies are more skeptical than in others. It has been found that consumers in New Zealand, Denmark, Sweden, and Singapore in particular have a less positive attitude toward advertising than consumers in other countries, while recipients in the US, India, China, and the UK have a more positive attitude than their counterparts in other cultures (Durvasula et al. 1993; 1999; Zhou et al. 2002; Young et al. 2003; Mukherji 2005). The positive attitude of (urban) Chinese consumers, for instance, can be explained by a political peculiarity of the country. Advertising was restricted in the communist era and is relatively new to the Chinese. This is why they enjoy it, although it has been revealed that they have less trust in this marketing instrument than American consumers (Zhou et al. 2002). In general, advertisers should be cautious about using extremely persuasive appeals in cultures where acceptance of advertising is low (e.g., Denmark, Sweden), but rather stress alternative goals, such as attention or image creation.
In addition, adequate advertising objectives can be derived from three cultural dimensions, namely individualism–collectivism, performance orientation, and uncertainty avoidance. In collectivistic cultures (like Japan and Korea), for instance, little is explicitly stated in written or spoken messages, because people consider verbal communication to be only part of the overall message. They rely rather on contextual cues from which they derive the meaning of what is verbally expressed. That is why such societies are also referred to as high-context cultures. Advertising in such societies should not be too persuasive, but rather aim at anchoring a product in the recipient’s mind. People in individualistic cultures, such as the US, tend to communicate more explicitly (low-context cultures). Hence, high-pressure selling is a common practice in these societies. In the US especially, advertising is often directly aimed at selling a product.
The US also allows comparative advertising messages that seek to persuade the audience by comparing a brand’s performance with specific, named competing brands. In societies with a lower performance orientation score, such as Germany, comparative advertising is restricted. Islamic societies tend to have an even weaker performance orientation. In some of them (e.g., Saudi Arabia), comparative advertising is completely prohibited. Indians, while more in favor of advertising in general, were found to perceive this kind of communication as insulting to their intelligence. This may be due to their low uncertainty avoidance score, which implies a high tolerance for ambiguity. Since Indian consumers do not feel offended by contradictory or inconsistent information, they are receptive to subtle messages rather than simple and direct selling propositions.
Advertising often appeals to values such as adventure, freedom, and economy. The goal is to condition a product in such a way that the audience associates it with these values. A commonly used research method to identify values stressed in advertising appeals is content analysis. Extensive content-analytic research on advertising campaigns across cultures indicates that the values stressed tend to correspond with the countries’ scores on Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, although economic and political transitions (e.g., in Korea) may be responsible for some contradictory results (e.g., Tse et al. 1989; AlbersMiller & Gelb 1996; Cho et al. 1999; Lin 2001; Müller & Gelbrich 2004; Han & Shavitt 2005).
In cultures with high power distance, such as Japan, advertising more often appeals to status values than in more egalitarian cultures like the US. Corresponding to these societies’ value systems, prestigious products or services may serve as status symbols to provide evidence of the owner’s or user’s social position (provided that this strategy fits the product or service).
Whereas performance and hedonism are more often appealed to in individualistic rather than collectivistic cultures, the opposite is true for sociability. Although performance and hedonism seem to be mutually exclusive at first glance, they do not need to be (e.g., “hard-working people should also have fun”).
In cultures with high uncertainty avoidance, people feel uncomfortable in new, unstructured situations. Preserving tradition helps to prevent such situations and to ensure stability. Since tradition is passed down from the older generation, advertising in “anxious” cultures tends to portray elderly people more often than advertising in cultures with low uncertainty avoidance. However, the differences are relative. Advertisers generally tend to refrain from portraying elderly people, but the few exceptions can be observed most often in cultures with high uncertainty avoidance.
A disadvantage of content analysis is that it only reveals what advertising is like rather than what it should be like. It fails to measure the effectiveness of an ad in terms of ad cognition, attitude toward the ad, brand cognition, attitude toward the brand, or purchase intention. However, contemporary research provides evidence that recipients actually prefer advertising that appeals to culture-conform values. For example, North American consumers evaluate individualist-laden culture-congruent advertising more favorably in terms of the above-mentioned effectiveness measures than collectivism-laden advertising appeals. The opposite holds true for their Chinese counterparts (Teng & Laroche 2006).
Sex roles are learned during the socialization process and differ from culture to culture. In masculine cultures, such as Japan, sex roles are rather distinct. Men should be determined and success oriented, whereas women are supposed to be modest and affectionate. Since these societies are dominated by men, they follow masculine ideals (e.g., performance and success). In feminine cultures, such as Denmark and Sweden, sex roles overlap. These cultures tend to stress feminine ideals (e.g., social welfare, mutual support).
These sex roles are reflected in advertising. Relationship portrayals (spouse/boyfriend/ girlfriend, parent, homemaker) are more frequently displayed in feminine than in masculine societies (Milner & Collins 2000), while the ratio of men to women shown at work is greater for masculine cultures than for feminine ones. The same can be observed for the ratio of men to women depicted as top executives (Müller & Gelbrich 2004). However, these results are relative. Even in feminine cultures, more men than women appear in work and top management roles, while women are more often portrayed in non-job activities.
Information cues (e.g., quality, nutrition, price, new ideas) help to reduce the uncertainty involved with a product purchase (Abernethy & Franke 1996). Although information seems to be something that is fairly objective, informative advertising is not at all culturefree. In particular, the scope of uncertainty during product purchase, and/or the degree to which this uncertainty is perceived as uncomfortable, vary from culture to culture. In cultures with high uncertainty avoidance, informative advertising is particularly useful for consumers to reduce their perceived risk of purchasing the “wrong” product. Consequently, advertisements on these markets contain more information cues – and in particular more price information – than in less “anxious” societies. Furthermore, advertisers refrain from introducing new ideas to consumers in cultures with high uncertainty avoidance (Müller & Gelbrich 2004).
The individualism–collectivism (lowto high-context) dimension also explains varying levels of information content in ads. People in high-context cultures are not used to exchanging explicit details when communicating. Therefore, commercials in these cultures contain fewer information cues in general and a lower level of price information in particular than in individualistic, low-context cultures, such as the US (Al-Olayan & Karande 2000).
Beyond culture, macro-economic variables such as gross domestic product (GDP) per capita or literacy level are responsible for the amount of information content provided in different societies. In three Arab countries, for example, the information content of magazine ads was found to increase with a country’s level of literacy. Similarly, the higher the per capita GDP the higher the level of price information (Karande et al. 2006). To sum up, studying culture is helpful when deciding upon the appropriate amount of information content for industrialized countries. In developing countries, however, advertisers should be aware of economic constraints that militate against the use of informative advertising. Since information cues are conveyed by text messages, illiterate people will not understand them. In this case, it is more reasonable to make use of symbols and images.
A symbol is something that means more than it seems to at first glance. Symbols may be pictures or images, but also concepts, words, or whole sentences. A light bulb, for instance, can stand for “enlightenment,” the caduceus is used as a symbol for medicine, and a virgin may represent immaculateness. Symbols are interpreted and decoded on the basis of social agreements, and hence may evoke diverging associations in different cultures. In most European countries a stork, for example, symbolizes the birth of a child, but in Singapore it stands for the early death of a child. The French associate nudity with beauty and nature, while Russians, on the contrary, perceive depictions of naked people as displeasing and offensive. To Germans the term “Oriental” tends to be associated with stereotypical images of camels and veiled women, whereas Americans are more likely to associate it with kimonos and chopsticks, stereotypical images from East Asia. Even the concept of beauty, which is shared by all human beings, is represented by different symbols. In Milan and Madrid women with black hair are regarded as beautiful, whereas women with blonde hair are more highly rated in Hamburg and London (Bjerke & Polegato 2006). International advertisers should therefore ensure that the symbols they use are equally decoded in the target markets. As a minimum, a positive symbol in one culture should not trigger any negative connotation in another.
Violating cultural values, for example, by depicting unfavorable sex roles, leads to less effective advertising. As the case of Benetton several years ago showed, consumers can be offended by advertising they consider to be unethical or politically incorrect. The Italian clothing company’s 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 to not only public criticism, but campaigns to boycott the company’s products. However, most advertisers follow the rule of adhering to the values of the target culture, and so appear undifferentiated from their competitors. In a heavily advertised market, breaking with traditional values may attract the attention of the target audience and build up a unique brand identity.
However, non-conform advertising has the advantage of novelty only when used for the first time. The more it is used the more the novelty wears thin and attention fades. This may be the reason why sex-role portrayal has become even more stereotypical in Australian advertising. Depicting the ideal of a working woman was new when only a few women were part of the workforce. As more women started to work, the novelty wore off and it received less attention (Milner & Higgs 2004). In the long run, non-conform advertising works only if the target audience actually seeks to distinguish itself from its own culture. Such transnational target groups are usually well educated, well off, and cosmopolitan. They are particularly receptive to luxury goods, durable consumer goods, and travel and hospitality services.
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