This guest blog post is written by Joe Lurie, Executive Director Emeritus, University of California Berkeley’s International House.
Recently, I taught a course attended by Chinese and French students on the intercultural challenges of marketing across cultures. Midway through the course I asked students to select a print, web or YouTube ad describing how the following items reflected cultural preoccupations, values and behaviors in their cultures:
- the product being promoted
- the selection of words in the headers
- the images and colors being used to reinforce the message
After analyzing the ad as a reflection of one’s culture, the student was to ask a fellow classmate from another culture why the ad would or would not work in their culture. In one example, a Chinese student demonstrated how Lipton tea is marketed in China. He noted that no tea bag was explicitly shown, as tea bags do not speak to the traditional way of preparing tea in China, and so not the best way to convince people to drink the Lipton product in China. Rather, the image was of green tea flowing from a cup on its side, producing green images in the style of Chinese paintings of mountains, fish and flowers, each with a particular symbolic value in Chinese culture. The French student who was interviewed had no exposure to traditional Chinese painting and saw not lovely images, but rather incomprehensible splotches! He added that the ad would not work in France as tea drinkers are generally accustomed to black or brown teas.
Color in many other ads revealed the power and status implications of yellow in China, yet something to beware of in France where it often suggests infidelity. Below from a French student are two different ways that Volkswagon is promoted in China and France, reflecting a powerful individualistic/collectivistic contrast, and a terrific way for students to engage in a conversation of cultural discovery: Below you will find an ad for a cleaning sponge selected by a French student, revealing what the student felt is a preoccupation with sex—reflected in explicit and other seductive ways in many other ads for other products in France. Sexual suggestions, so graphically portrayed, would not, according to the Chinese students in my class, be acceptable in Chinese product promotions. And in a French ad for BMW, a man is shown making love to the body of a woman whose face is in fact a BMW!
A Chinese ad for a very strong 38% alcohol rice beverage portrayed a bottle whose shape was interpreted by the French as a perfume bottle, and so it would not be a convincing way of promoting an alcoholic beverage there.
The bold red color signifying affluence and status for the Chinese was seen as over the top by the French students, who noted a preference in the French aesthetic for far more nuanced, muted colors. This prompted a spirited conversation between the Chinese and French in which it was revealed that ads with very high alcoholic content are discouraged or banned in France, but visual ads for condoms were common there, though not generally acceptable in China. That conversation ended with a comparison of toasting custom—the French “drink and sip” vs the Chinese GAMBAY or “bottoms up”—ALL at ONCE!
Should readers of this blog try this approach in their intercultural classes and training sessions, I hope you will consider sharing the fun and insights here….
Executive Director Emeritus at the University of California’s International House, Joe is currently a cross-cultural communications consultant, university instructor and Cultural Detective certified facilitator. Contact Joe via email or LinkedIn.