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Advertising Decoded: The Importance of Cultural Context

Semiotic analysis is a tool for uncovering the meaning of symbols that can be used to find strengths and weaknesses of ad campaigns. This article demonstrates how cultural context changes the effect of advertising based on specific cultural codes.



We have all heard stories of international companies’ local advertising campaigns gone horribly wrong. It can happen in China.

In order for advertising to be effective, it must convey the intended message, giving consideration to underlying cultural codes. Semiotics, the study of signs and symbols and their meaning, offers valuable tools for analyzing advertising to uncover strengths or weaknesses of ad campaigns. Semiotic analysis can be more effective than focus groups, as focus group participants can often tell you that they love or hate a certain ad, but they cannot tell you why.

Let’s take a recent global advertising campaign by Tommy Hilfiger as an example. Hilfiger promotes his cologne using the image of a rugged, handsome man driving a vintage motorcycle alone in the desert.

Hilfiger advertisement

From a Western perspective, this image expresses individuality, independence, freedom, and adventure. The codes inspired by each image, or “sign”, in the advertisement are shown below:

Hilfiger advertisement with coding

In general, advertising can communicate either a solution narrative (i.e. buy our product and it will solve your problems), or an enhancement narrative (your life is already good, but if you use our product it will be that much better). The Tommy advertisement is an example of an enhancement narrative.

Now, let’s compare the message being conveyed in both the Western and the Chinese context.

* Motorcycle: Whereas in a Western context a motorcycle represents freedom, adventure, and speed, in a Chinese context it is considered dangerous, noisy, and low status.

* Open Landscape: For Westerners, the open landscape portrays independence and lifestyle enhancement. From the Chinese view, the countryside may be perceived as dirty and dusty.

As you can see, the codes present in the advertisement convey a very different message when translated into the Chinese context, and do not result in communicating the message of a self-confident, successful, and visionary man.

Such a man in Chinese culture would possess attributes like thoughtfulness, a sense of tradition, strong family values, an established social network, a successful career, and a personal sense of peacefulness and harmony.

So, in order to convey the intended message to Chinese male consumers, the following corresponding cultural codes could be used:

Western cultural code versus Chinese cultural code

Other related considerations could include the cultural meaning of perfume and occasions of use for the Chinese consumer.

As you can see, advertising contains underlying codes, the meaning of which differs across cultural contexts. By conducting market research through semiotic analysis, companies can more effectively assess whether their advertising campaigns will be successful or not. In addition, for campaigns that have already been run, they can analyze why they were successes or failures in local markets such as China.

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