Why Culture Is Important in Advertising
By Miguel Molina
One of the very first things a college student learns in their Intro to Marketing and/or Intro to Advertising course is simple, “Know thy customer”. Customers, after all, are the ones who will utilize the product or service you put into the market. They are looking to be satisfied. But what does culture have to do with it? In a word: everything. As our world becomes smaller and more interconnected with advancing technologies, the need to know about other cultures has become more imperative.
Tip #1: Watch and Know Your Language
There are the classic examples of KFC in China where “Finger Licking Good” got mistranslated to “We’ll eat your fingers off” or Parker Pens which accidentally read, “It won’t leak in your pocket and make you pregnant”. Command of language is a powerful tool that can be used for a powerful campaign or an advertising blunder. Being wary of double meaning, hidden meanings, and cultural nuances are crucial. This is especially important for agencies that have an international reach.
An example of such a nuance is the “innocent” case of an umbrella. During the summer before my junior year of college, I studied abroad in Heredia, Costa Rica. It was July, the middle of the rainy season, and I needed to bring an umbrella with me to class. Before leaving the house, I talked to my host mom and asked to borrow her umbrella. She laughed and told me to use my dad’s since her umbrella is for a woman. Confused, she explained that there were two words for umbrella in Costa Rican Spanish, sombrilla (a woman’s umbrella) and a paragua (a man’s umbrella). It was an example like this that made me realize the importance of language and knowing these cultural nuances, even if it is as innocent as the word “umbrella”.
Tip #2: Representation at the Table
Having a place at the table is essential for any advertising/marketing agency. That is to say, people of different backgrounds, cultures, and identities deserve to have a place at the decision table. For example, when selling a product such as feminine hygiene products, you need to have women on your team. If you are selling a certain product that is catered to Koreans, it is necessary to have Korean people on your team or to consult with to better understand these cultural nuances and priorities.
This goes beyond the decision table. When designing your ad/campaign be sure to include people of different backgrounds and identities since that is what America is: diverse. Diversity allows for more conversations and cultural appreciation and prevents cultural blindness and a “yes-man” mentality.
Tip #3: Don’t Stop Learning
The culture of our industry is simple: “The only thing that is constant, is change”. With new media, technologies/tools, and innovations, being on your toes is part of the game. Thus, reading trade journals, researching and analyzing trends, etc. are all necessary parts to keep our mind sharp and ready to better serve our customers. These skills can be learned on an agency level; but, what is more impactful? Taking the initiative and learning to develop skills to help you grow and help your company grow too!
For example, to help develop my linguistic skills, I am learning a fifth language: Brazilian Portuguese. By learning new languages, I will be able to help the agency I work with to access new clients and markets. To keep up with ever changing international trends, I read through BBC Latin America and BBC Asia; read international newspapers; and so much more. Having familiarity with new forms of media is also important as the world gets connected digitally.
With all the connections we are making, remembering the guiding force of culture will keep the customer at the center of our decision process.