Two ways your images may be derailing your international ads

It’s Friday afternoon and you finally got the last approval for that international ad you’re running world-wide next month. After weeks of wrangling, everyone finally agreed on the catchy headline, the punchy copy, and the perfect image. You’re exhausted, but thrilled. You just know this ad is going to play as well in Paris and Peru as it will in Pittsburgh and Peoria. All you have to do now is send it to the translation company to get the text translated into multiple languages and you should be ready to send your final files to the magazines in a week or so.

So, you’re done, right? Hold on. While it may seem that images are universal, you may be about to make one of the two classic mistakes related to visuals in international ads.

Mistake 1: An item in the image looks different in different countries

This mistake is almost ridiculously easy to make, since it is the rare person that looks at every item in a photo and evaluates whether it looks different in other countries. But consider the homely electrical plug. Countless campaigns focusing on “connections” have used a plug and socket in their ad imagery. If you create the ad in the US, you’ll likely use a plug photo with two flat prongs (or two flat and a round, if you are showing a grounded plug). Great. Everyone in the US will instantly recognize that this is an electrical plug and will move on to your message.

However, in the EU or Australia, your viewer may pause for a moment, puzzled, wondering what he is looking at. Why? Because plugs in the EU have two circular prongs and plugs in Australia have three flat prongs. That puzzlement will only last a second, granted. But the damage will be done. You have only a second to establish credibility and get the viewer to read your message. And you just lost that second (and your credibility) by showing the wrong electrical prong for that country.

Mistake 2: An item in the image means something different in different countries

Again, this mistake is incredibly easy to make, since we are usually only familiar with the cultural nuances in our own country. Let’s consider the concept of a “blue ribbon.” In the US, this means best in class, award winner, first place, etc. Once again, countless campaigns focusing on superior quality have used blue ribbon imagery in the ad. Perfect – if you’re running this ad in the US. However, in the UK, the viewer is going to be more than a little baffled that you seem to emphasizing your second best standing, since in the UK, red ribbons signal first place. Blue ribbons are awarded as consolation prizes to the second place winners.

So, how can you prevent these classic imagery mistakes?

  1. Make a list of all key items in your images.
  2. Start to do some systematic research on each key item. After all, Google is right there, waiting for you to ask questions like “what do electrical plugs look like in Paris?”
  3. Ask your translation company for their feedback on the key items. Since most translators live in-country and have in-depth knowledge of the culture, as well as the language, they are excellent resources for these types of questions.
  4. Ask your regional staff, if applicable, for their feedback on those key items.

Now here is the critical part.

If your research or the feedback indicates that your image won’t work in another country, change it! Yes, it will mean more rounds of review and approvals. But isn’t that better than spending an incredible amount of money on an ad that, at best, will be ignored, or at worst, will make your company look foolish?

Yes, a picture can take the place of a thousand words. The key, however, is to make sure it is the right picture for the country.


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