Hofstede helps

The issue of images and cultural references was once looked at closely by a PhD student and university professor in the United States. The 2004 study raised issues that should be debated more often in advertising agencies. Business really needs to look at this issue more closely, but I guess not many of us have enough time…

The brains behind the 2004 study (who deserve credit: Nitish Singh, California State University Chico, and Daniel W. Baack Saint Louis University) took a detailed look at Hofstede’s cultural indicators and what they tell us about advertising. Some advertising execs may find the paper too academic, but the bottom line is relevant to us all. The specific example they looked at was cultural references on websites in the US vs Mexico. Singh has also looked at the Americans vs Japan.

To cut a long story short, the images they looked at on websites tell us tons. In Mexico you saw a lot more “collectivism” than the US. With images like this (screenshot from here):

collectivism1.jpg collectivism2.jpg

In the States, you won’t see so many images saying “look at us all working together”, “business family”. The same applies to the UK.

They also found “tradition” was a major theme on Mexican websites. The visual cue for this was often along the lines of “Serving you since 1890”. I see plenty of this in Germany! In the UK you tend to see more modernity. Tradition to us means more like “well, so you used to be good, but are you now up to date? We don’t need a supplier whose machines are 100 years old”. In Germany, tradition means more that “these people have been around a while so they know their stuff”. A bit like many of the small and medium sized enterprises here, specialised in obscure but leading technology. A client at my agency once asked us to adapt their slogan into English (something like “Innovation out of tradition”). I nearly refused as this would not necessarily have hit the right note in the UK. They hated the alternatives we provided – “too modern”.


This “traditional” imagery relates to Hofstede’s indicator for “Uncertainty avoidance”, and boy, the Germans are known for that!

Then the websites in Mexico displayed plenty of “Power distance”, particularly with CEOs and big bosses showing how great they or, hierarchy information and the visions and prided in the company. So (like in Austria) there were full job titles and qualifications and images showing who’s in charge. In other countries this can look pompous:


Finally, the masculinity of Mexico came across strongly with clear gender roles like “men at work” visuals, hard sell and superlatives:


Overall then, an excellent study. Using Hofstede to pull apart cultural refences in marketing – and avoid the sort of aimless discussion I hear every day from advertising execs (often based on nothing more than personal opinion and comments like “but it works alright in our country”) – would do advertising adaptation a world of good.

Details of study: http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol9/issue4/singh_baack.html

Alex Woodruff

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