Advertising campaigns should reflect the cultural values and practices of the country in which they're used.

Photo: Shutterstock

By now it should go without saying that an advertisement used in one country may not work well in another. However, marketing and advertising managers fail to take this into account often enough that there’s still room for research on the issue.

Salman Saleem of the University of Vaasa in Finland has done exactly that with a recent project, which reinforces the fact that, just because an ad works in Sweden, doesn’t mean it will work in Estonia.

Marketing often relies upon idioms and tropes that are familiar to the culture in which that marketing originates, but which don’t always translate well. For example, while owls represent wisdom in many Western cultures, in South Asia are seen as absurd or silly. Thus, an American ad using an owl to project the wisdom of buying a product is not going to net many sales in Vietnam.

But, says Saleem, inconsistency in cultural tropes around the world isn’t the only issue.

When he studied advertising in Estonia, Finland, and Sweden, he found that at times, cultural values differed from actual cultural practices, and this dichotomy was found in advertising as well.

For example, in those three nations, the cultural values reflect low power distance and femininity, but advertisements appeal to status, vanity, and power. One cheese brand, for example, shows that the product is used by high-status people. In Estonia, the clothing brand Baltman emphasizes luxury and expense.

“In other words, endorsement of egalitarian, modesty, caring, and self-restraint values do not describe the culture and how appeals and messages are used in advertising,” Saleem says.

Advertisements in those countries also emphasize effectiveness and productivity, values generally associated with a masculine culture. Even feminine hygiene products are marketed with appeals to productivity and competitiveness.

Ultimately, “international marketing and advertising managers should have a simultaneous attention to culture in terms of its values and actual practices in deciding advertising content across cultures,” says Saleem.