Marketing collateral, such as ads, web pages, tradeshow displays, and product packaging, is usually a careful blend of text and visuals. The two elements work together to produce one or more of the following:
- A mood or emotion, such as trust or excitement
- A better understanding of the key product message
- A better understanding of the product usage, in situ
- A snapshot of the culture that uses the product
The final result is meant to produce a powerful inter-semiotic translation, capturing how the company wants to present the product to its customers. Consider the following example of a dog food ad:
An ad shows a family collaboratively preparing what appears to be a healthy and expensive dinner, i.e. grilled meat, lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, etc. One of the children, a little boy roughly eight or nine years old, is opening a single-size package of dog food, much to the anticipation of the adorable family dog. The parents are viewing this activity with smiles and approving looks. The headlines states: “Special dogs deserve special meals”.
In this single image, the following semiotic messages can be seen:
- The product should be viewed as healthy and high-end, in line with the same type of meal the family is having
- The product is meant for consumers who consider their pets to be part of the family, even being included in mealtime routines
- The product is meant to be easy to use, so even a small child can handle both opening the product and correct portion control
On an even deeper cultural level, the independence of the child and the parent’s approval of the child’s adult-like activities comes from an individualistic culture, i.e. one that prepares its young for their eventual independence in the world. As you can see, this type of ad would likely work well in countries that are both affluent and individualistic (US, Canada, and most of Western Europe). However, if this same ad was being used in a country with higher power distances or a masculine culture, these factors would need to be considered:
- In high power distance cultures, organizations, including families, have strict hierarchies. It would be very unlikely the family dog would be viewed as having the same mealtime priority as the rest of the family.
- In masculine cultures, the preparation of meals would not be a shared activity with the whole family (at best, it would include all the women in the family, but not the men). It would also be unlikely that a young male child would be rewarded for participating in meal preparation.
In these cultures, not only would the initial semiotic messages likely have to be adapted, but the image itself would need to be adapted to synchronize with the updated messaging. For example, in the high power distance culture, the image with all the meals, human and canine, being prepared at the same time wouldn’t be appropriate. Instead, the image would likely focus on just the product and the dog, showing the dog’s appreciation for the food, rather than any family references.
For the international marketer, it is critical to consider these cultural nuances when selecting images to convey your brand’s message. What can seem like an idyllic family photo in one culture can come across as offensive or ridiculous in another.
Munday, J. (2004). Advertising: Some challenges to translation theory. The Translator. 10:2, pp. 199-219.