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The influence of culture on advertising: A consumer perspective

The influence of culture on advertising: A consumer perspective

This paper proposes to investigate the influence of culture on advertising by considering consumers perceptions on foreign advertisements. It will achieve this by subjecting a sample of British respondents to some Kenyan advertisements (which Kenyan respondents will also be exposed to) and Kenyan respondents to British advertisements (which Kenyan respondents will also be exposed to). It will then consider the similarities and differences in their perceptions and responses. Consequently this should give insight as to the factors that influence their perceptions of the advertisements which could be the signs, symbols and artefact used or other factors. A review of the literature suggests that previous studies have not considered consumer perception and have instead content analysed existing advertisements from different countries. Therefore this study seeks to take a customer perspective and contribute to existing knowledge by giving insight into the underlying cultural aspects that influence the customer's perception whether it lies in the interpretation of signs and symbols or other cultural factors. In addition to contributing to existing research this has a practical implication on which aspects of advertising content and creative style are transferable to different countries. However the study has some limitations. Due to time and budget constraints it will be conducted over a short period of time and carried out on a very small scale. The study will only examine one European country (UK) and one African country (Kenya) therefore these countries cannot necessarily be regarded as representative of these two geographic regions.


Academics and advertising practitioners have been debating standardisation versus adaptation of advertising for over 40years (Agrawal, 1995). Despite several empirical studies and literature reviews the debate goes on (Fastoso and Whitelock, 2007). The definition of standardisation and adaptation itself has been quite obscure in the past. There is a question of whether a similar advertisement run in two different countries with only a difference of language translation is, in principle, standardised or adapted (Hollensen, 2001). For purposes of this study, legal requirements such as language translation will not be considered as adaptation. The main proponent of standardisation (Levitt, 1983) believes that the world's desires and needs are becoming more homogenized. He argues that there are no cultural, religious, or political factors that can prevent the massive growth of globalization. In his article Levitt implies that consumers are so preoccupied with modernity that they will buy anything that is presented to them provided the price is right. He advocates that people want what everyone else has regardless of national differences and the only factor that may deter them from getting it is price. Thus his reasoning that standardisation is the ideal as it considerably lowers costs and consequently prices. In addition to decreasing costs, proponents of standardisation argue that it allows for a more consistent image of the brand and avoids customer confusion (Harvey 1993 cites in Usunier 2000). Proponents of adaptation argue that advertisers must take into account such differences as "culture, stage of economic and industrial development, stage of product life cycle, media availability, and legal restrictions" in order to avoid international advertising blunders (Britt 1974; Nielsen 1964 cite in Agrawal 1995). Mooij (2000) strongly opposes the view that converging incomes lead to convergence in consumer needs. She argues that infact the more disposable income that consumers have, the more freedom they have to buy things that are consistent with their specific values which essentially means that as incomes converge, customer needs diverge thus justifying the need for adaptation. However, according to Vrontis and Vronti (2004), it is not feasible or desirable for a firm to adopt either absolute standardisation (due to cultural differences) or adaptation (due to cost considerations) and it is therefore a question of the degree of standardisation or adaptation that should be practiced. An increasing number of researchers (Kotler, 1986; Walters, 1986; Ryans et al, 2003; Siraliova and Anjelis, 2006; Papavassiliou and Stathakopoulos, 1997) support this view. Several empirical studies have been conducted in an attempt to contribute to the standardisation/adaptation debate. Some of these studies have focused on what may be termed as culturally similar countries (Whitelock and Rey, 1998; Seitz and Handojo, 1997) while many have focused on culturally dissimilar countries (Mueller, 1987; Cutler et al, 1992; Zhang and Neelankavil, 1997; Koudelova and Whitelock, 2001; Harris and Attour, 2003). A study by Koudelova and Whitelock (2001) of TV advertisements in UK and Czech Republic found that creative strategy depends more on product category than culture and therefore standardisation among certain product categories is possible. Whereas Lin's (1993) study found that Japanese commercials contain less product information than American ones thus corresponding with Hall's (1978) cross-cultural theory of high and low context cultures. From the two studies it can therefore be inferred that both product category and culture are influential in choice of advertising strategy. Seitz and Handojo (1997) content analysed three categories of beauty products in the UK, Germany and USA. Their findings showed that overall there was higher standardisation between UK and German advertisements

than between UK and US adverts. This is contrary to previous suggestions that market similarity allows for greater standardisation (UK and USA are considered to have higher market similarity). A content analysis of TV advertisements by Whitelock and Rey (1998) found that although France and UK are considered to have high market similarity, there were very few instances of standardisation practiced. Majority of the sampled advertisements were adapted. The general inconsistency in empirical results indicates that the debate is far from over.

1.2 Cultural Influence in Advertising

Hofstede (2001) defines culture as "the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another." Culture is characterized by the presence of symbols, rituals, heroes and values. He argues that values are the core of culture. Luna and Gupta (2001) agree that values drive an individual's behaviour and add that there is a relationship of mutual influence between symbols, rituals and culture. According to Pollay and Gallagher (1990) advertising is a selective reinforcement of some behaviours and values. A similar view is expressed by Meenaghan (1995) who believes that a prime function of advertising is to achieve for a brand a particular personality or character in the perception of its market by imbuing the brand with specific associations or values. This suggests that it is necessary in international advertising for an advertisement to reflect values and behaviours which are consistent with the target market's culture so as not to alienate the audience. According to Belch and Belch (2004), a receiver's perception of the source influences how the message is received and it is therefore important to use a communicator that the receiver can identify with. This may explain why (in international advertising) some marketers may use local models or celebrities. Similarly, encoding of messages aims to use words and symbols that the target audience are familiar with because words, pictures, colours and sounds may have different meanings to different audiences (Belch n Belch, 2004). (Shimp 1997; p119) supports this by adding that "the same sign can mean different things to different people at different times and in different contexts." He states that effective communication is severely compromised when marketing communicators use signs that customers do not understand. To counter problems with associations he suggests drawing meaning from a "culturally constituted world" in which a marketer attempts to promote a product by attaching meaning to something which is associated with a particular culture. For example Honda Accord was advertised by including a hamburger, a baseball and cowboy boots in the advert to illustrate its 'Americaness' because these artefacts are typically associated with being American (Shimp, 1997; p120-121). The choice of message appeal is one of the most important creative strategy decisions for an advertiser (Shimp, 2004). Pickton and Broderick (2001) point out that, values in a particular culture will have an impact on the type of communication appeals that are important. A study of advertising appeals used in China and USA by Zhang and Neelankavil (1997) showed that appeals that were collectivist in nature where more accepted in China while individualistic appeals were better accepted in the USA. This suggests that consumers are more inclined to appeals that are congruent to their

cultural values. Moon and Chan (2005) also compared the use of appeals in television advertising in Korea and Hong Kong and found that there was a tendency to use more masculine appeals in Hong Kong (a masculine society) and feminine appeals in Korea which is considered a feminine society. This would suggest that some advertisers are aware of the influence of culture on advertising appeals.

1.3 Perception and Consumer behaviour

Perception has been defined as "...the process by which physical sensations such as sights sounds and smells are selected, organised and interpreted" (Solomon et al 2006, p56). According to Solomon et al (2006) the interpretation of stimulus is what allows the assigning of meaning through an interpretation of signs and symbols. In international advertising the use of non-verbal language like signs and symbols is extremely sensitive because advertisers may easily fail to recognise their different meanings whereas in verbal communication language differences are obvious (Hawkins et al, 2004). Consumer behaviour literature (Schiffman and Kanuk, 2004; Antonides and Fred van Raaij, 1998; Hawkins et al, 2004; Solomon, 2006) tells us that perception is influenced by how people interpret stimuli and attach meaning to it, which is in turn determined by their collection of beliefs and feelings (schema). Therefore the meaning assigned to marketing stimulus (like advertising) is influenced by an interpretation of the symbols used which when shared by others form a common language or culture (Solomon et al, 2006). While advertising literature (Belch and Belch, 2004; Fill, 2002) tells us that a receiver's perception of the source influences how the message is received. Similarly the acknowledgement in advertising literature that "the same sign can mean different things to different people at different times and in different contexts" (Shimp, 2004; Belch and Belch, 2004) and the understanding that the process of attaching meaning to stimuli is determined by a collection of belief and feelings suggests that there is a strong link between perception and the signs and symbols used in advertising.

Numerous researchers including (Papavassiliou and Stathakopoulos, 1997; Kotler, 1986; Walters, 1986; Ryans et al, 2003; Siraliova and Anjelis, 2006) have studied the impact of culture on the decision to standardise or adapt advertising in foreign markets. Furthermore several of these studies have involved cross cultural studies (Whitelock and Rey, 1998; Seitz and Handojo, 1997; Mueller, 1992; Cutler et al, 1992; Zhang and Neelankavil, 1997; Koudelova and Whitelock, 2001; Harris and Attour, 2003). However a review of the literature indicates that the empirical studies on this topic have focused on the existing advertising practices mainly using content analysis (an advertiser's perspective) as opposed to taking a customer perspective. Content analysis only serves in analysing the different advertising executions being used in various countries and do not consider the consumers perception of the advertisements. Studies that focus on customer's perception of (international)

advertising are therefore (to the best of my knowledge) under researched. In addition to this, Ryans et al (2003) and Dahl (2004) have both identified that greater insights may be obtained by looking at a customer perspective and have suggested this as a direction for future research. This study therefore seeks to contribute to this research area by conducting in-depth interviews with a sample of British and Kenyan respondents to investigate how customers perceive advertisements intended for a different market and the extent to which their perceptions and attitudes are influenced by cultural aspects.


The aim of this study is to investigate the influence of culture on consumer perceptions of international advertisements. As discussed in the literature review, there is a link between perception and signs/symbols used in advertising. Therefore in order to achieve the above aim, the study will focus on answering the following research questions: 1. Is the consumer able to relate to the signs, symbols and artefacts used in the advertisement?

2. How does the consumer interpret the signs, symbols and artefacts used in the advertisement?

3. Is the executional style of the advertisement acceptable to the consumer?


As illustrated by the literature review, there have been decades of deliberation over the issue of standardisation and adaptation. Whereas several useful insights have been gained through empirical studies, researchers and practitioners are still lacking a conclusive solution to this problem. This study seeks to bring us a step closer to the solution by looking at the most important aspect of marketing - the customer. Investigating consumer's perceptions of foreign advertisements gives insight into the underlying cultural aspects that influence the customer's perception whether it lies in the interpretation of signs and symbols or the meanings attached to them. In addition to contributing to existing research this has a practical implication on which aspects of advertising content and creative style are transferable to different countries. Furthermore, it illustrates how basic communication can be hindered through the use of inappropriate signs, symbols and artefacts.

The research will be based on a phenomenological philosophy using qualitative data collection methods. It will follow a deductive approach where it will use existing theory about adaptation and standardisation and seeks to confirm or refute the theory through its data collection. The data will be collected through in-depth one to one interviews. In-depth interviews will be used in order to identify patterns in the responses but more importantly to identify "how" people feel about the advertisements, and "why" they feel or think the way they do (Saunders et al, 1997). The interviews will be semi-structured whereby although there are certain goals to be achieved, questions will not be asked or answered in any logical order, they will instead be formulated and asked according to the general flow of the conversation. Semi structured interviews are the most suitable for this study as they allow more flexibility than structured interviews because the respondent is able to discuss a range of issues which are outside the set questions and the interviewer is able to then manipulate those responses to gain deeper insight into other issues that may not have been previously considered (Saunders et al, 1997).

5.1 Target Sample

The target sample will be selected through non probability sampling and will consist of two samples; one British and one Kenyan. For purposes of this study, we will consider anyone born and raised in Britain as British. Similarly being Kenyan refers to those persons born and raised in Kenya regardless of their race or ancestral background. One sample will consist of 8 Kenyan females aged 18-35 and the other sample will contain 8 British females aged 18-35. The sample size (16 respondents) was selected for convenience considering the detail and time required to conduct indepth interviews. Despite its small size Berelson (1971) suggests that the analysis of a small, carefully chosen sample will produce just as valid results as analysis of a bigger sample. A major determinant for selecting females of that age group is that women contribute significantly to the global market segment and have long been the main target of mass advertising (Dallman, 2001). The females in both samples will be middle class, with at least a university level education. The reason for this being that education, social class and occupation are likely to influence people's perceptions and attitudes therefore to avoid any biases the two chosen samples are required to have a high level of similarity (Hollensen 2001). The Kenyan respondents will be shown 3 print advertisements intended for a UK audience and asked to give feedback on them as will the British sample while the British respondents will be shown 3 print advertisements for the Kenyan audience and asked to feedback on them as will the Kenyan sample. The aim is to analyse the perceptions of the respondents, whether they are culturally influenced and identify similarities and differences in the responses of the two samples. The advertisements that will be used will be those of well known international brands to ensure that both samples are aware of them.

Since the interview will follow the flow of conversation between respondent and interviewer, it is difficult to predict the questions that will be asked. However the main goals of the interviews will be to identify: 1) Perceptions and attitudes towards the advert. 2) How does it make them feel about the brand? 3) Understanding of the advert and what it is promoting. 4) General comments about creative elements used in the advert. With this in mind the questions may be as follows:

What do you think of the advert?

Do you understand what it is specifically promoting?

How do you feel about it? (prying to find out if for example it is offensive) Why?

The interviewer will aim to keep the question as general as possible in order to receive more information from the respondent.

This paper proposes that an empirical study be carried out to the influence of culture on consumer perceptions of international advertisements. A review of the literature indicates that a gap exists in considering a consumer perspective therefore this proposal aims to fill that gap. The literature review section firstly discussed the various arguments supporting standardisation and adaptation and identified that an increasing number of researchers and academics believe that standardisation and adaptation stand at two ends of a continuum and that the issue should be the degree to which advertising should be standardised or adapted. Previous empirical studies and their contribution to the research have also been discussed. The literature review also looked at advertising in its generic form is affected by cultural aspects of association between signs and symbols. Finally it looked at what perception is and how it is influenced. The paper also discussed the methodology that should be used.

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