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Culture in Advertising


How does culture impact the world of advertising?

Well, as with any sector, it's definetly not immune to it.

When working globally it's crucial to be aware of cultural differences. This is just as true if you are running a global advertising campaign as with anything else.

Did you hear about McDonald's and their TV advert in China? Well, they showed a Chinese man begging for a burger and this annoyed the Chinese people! They had to pull the ad and apologize to the nation.

So, ignore culture at your peril!

"Culture is a like dropping an Alka-seltzer into a glass - you don't see it, but somehow it does something."

Hans Magnus Enzensberger

Culture affects everything, including advertising

When advertising professionals don't take this seriously, things can go very wrong.

We'll share a great example of a cultural blunder in advertising in just a little while, but first, it's important to understand the influences of culture in a little more detail.

When interacting within our native cultures, culture acts as a framework of shared understanding.

However, when interacting with different cultures, this shared framework no longer applies, which results in cultural differences.

gulf air ad headdress

Know your target audience! This clever ad from Gulf Air uses different regional men's headwear to connect with theirs.

Image by Lars Plougmann on Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Cultural Differences

'Culturally competent' people minimize the negative impact of cultural differences by re-establishing common frameworks for people from different cultures to interact within.

In cuturally-savvy international businesses, cultural insights are routinely applied across all business functions - whether HR, team building, foreign trade, negotiations or website design.

For obvious reasons, such cultural intelligence is critical to effective cross cultural advertising - particularly since materials are typically distributed within the public domain; risking company reputation. 

Since services and products are usually designed and marketed for a domestic audience, when the same product is then marketed at an international audience, the domestic advertising campaign will, in most cases, be ineffective.

hollywood buddha poster screenshot

The poster (see above, left) advertising the movie, Hollywood Buddha, led to protests across the Buddhist world including Thailand and Sri Lanka. Any idea why? Click here to find out!

Advertising Across Cultures

The essence of successful advertising is convincing people that a product is meant for them. By purchasing it, they will receive some benefit, whether lifestyle, status, convenience or financial.

However, when an advertising campaign is taken abroad, the target audience typically have different values and perceptions as to what enhances status or what constitutes convenience. As such, these differences make the original advertising campaign defunct.

It is therefore critical to any cross cultural, global or international advertising campaign that a throrough understanding of the target culture is acquired.

Let's examine a few examples of cultural differences in advertising to see why.

Language in Advertising

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.

Ford Pinto Translation

The advertising world is littered with examples of linguistic advertising 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. The idea of challenging everything goes against the grain of respecting others and protecting relationships. As such, it's frowned upon.

It is imperative therefore that language be examined carefully in any international or cross cultural advertising campaign.

Communication Style in 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.

It's important to communicate in a way that appeals to the target audience.

Colours, Numbers and Images in Advertising

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.

red gold cards china

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

In some cultures there are lucky colours, such as red and gold 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.

Some 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.

Images should also culturally sensitive.

Whereas it is common to see pictures of women in bikinis on advertising posters on the metro in Japan (such as the one below) such images would cause outrage in the Middle East!

subway ad japanese

Photo by Dick Thomas Johnson on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Cultural Values in Advertising

When advertising abroad, the cultural values underpinning the society must be analysed carefully.

Questions that should be asked about the target country or culture include:

  • 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?
  • Is it a multiultural or monocultural country?


All of these will impact an advertising campaign if left unexamined.

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.

Often the world of advertising can show us a lot about a culture’s values.
In this advertisement for new shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the advertisers roll out a series of messages and visuals designed to appeal to the Japanese tourist market.
Can you spot the main values they are focusing on?


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 your target audience and what motivates them.

Advertising across cultures is simply about using common sense and analyzing how the different elements of an advertising campaign are impacted by culture and modifying them to best speak to the target audience. 

Learn More About World Cultures

The Culture Vulture



Are you a bit of a Culture Vulture?

If you want to learn a lot more about cultural differences, values, etiquette and taboos from around the world then check out our resources!





Main image adapted version of original by F Delventhal on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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