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International Business: Some international ads are perceived as sexist due to different cultural norms

Published: Friday, April 29 2011 7:00 a.m. MDT

Procter & Gamble, like many other international corporations, learned U.S. portrayals of women in advertising are not always socially acceptable in other countries. In her book, "Soap Opera: The Inside Story of Procter & Gamble," author Alecia Swasy relates the result of one misguided soap commercial.

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Procter & Gamble, like many other international corporations, learned U.S. portrayals of women in advertising are not always socially acceptable in other countries. In her book, “Soap Opera: The Inside Story of Procter & Gamble,” author Alecia Swasy relates the result of one misguided soap commercial.

“A Camay campaign pitched the soap as making women more attractive to men, a common theme in P&G advertising. The ad showed a Japanese man walking into the bathroom while his wife sat in the tub. Japanese women were offended because it is ‘bad manners for a husband to impose on his wife’s privacy while she is bathing,’ explained Mia Ishiguro, who worked on Camay in Japan. ‘Our consumers resented the breach of good manners and the overt chauvinism of the situation.’”

Such gender themes and portrayals of women are common and largely accepted in the United States, but international marketers must consider that gender relations — particularly portrayals of women – can be viewed very differently in other cultures. Understanding local attitudes will help global advertisers to avoid giving offense and attain greater success in target markets.

Some gender-specific marketing will fail in nearly any country. For example, Reebok executives were horrified to learn the company’s Incubus brand name for a new women’s running shoe originated from the name of a medieval demon that preyed on sleeping women. Fiat once attempted to market a car to Spanish women by sending what appeared to be anonymous love notes, but the audacious notes unintentionally made women feel threatened.

Other gender-related marketing errors are more culture-specific. Author Paul A. Herbig noted in his “Handbook of Cross-Cultural Marketing” that AT&T incorporated a pair of cultural errors in an advertisement targeting Latinos. In the ad, a Puerto Rican wife says to her husband, “Run downstairs and phone Mary. Tell her we will be a little late.” Though quite natural and innocent by most U.S. standards, Herbig explained that, in many Latin American cultures, a wife would not “order” her husband to make such as call, and “almost no Latin would feel it necessary to phone to warn of tardiness, since it is expected.”

Ad mistakes such as these can drain a marketing budget while entirely missing their mark – and may never even be seen by the intended audience because of laws and cultural norms that prevent them from ever being displayed. The city of Montreal, Canada, has prevented public display of advertisements deemed too sexist. In Muslim countries, a Sunsilk shampoo commercial that shows nothing more than a woman’s head and hand may be pushing the line, and some Middle Eastern publications do not accept any advertisement that contains a picture of a woman.

In contrast with the cultural and gender minefields described above, the California Milk Processor Board saw great success when it sought to better understand the perceived roles of Latino mothers, an important market. The board wisely heeded the warnings of California-based ad executive Anita Santiago, who indicated the humorous and popular “Got milk?” campaign would not work well in Latino culture. The problem was not only that the Spanish translation of the catchphrase could be understood to refer to nursing, rather than a purchased dairy product, but also that being without milk was not amusing to Latino mothers who had family and friends abroad in poorer countries where food was a more genuine concern.

In place of the “Got Milk?” campaign, Anita created a campaign that asked Latino mothers “Y usted, ¿Les dio suficiente leche hoy?” ("And you, did you give them enough milk today?"). The campaign leveraged strong Latino family values and focused on old family recipes that used milk as a principal ingredient. The campaign later evolved to include the tagline, “Familia, amor y leche.” (Family, love and milk.”) Thanks to Santiago’s help, the campaign went beyond just avoiding offense and actually achieved great success because it was adapted so appropriately to the target culture.

Companies will avoid more international, gender-related blunders if they first research what faux pas to avoid. As with any international or culture-specific venture, obtain expert help from marketers who really understand the local culture and can make your campaign great.

Adam Wooten is director of translation services at Lingotek. He also teaches a course on translation technology at BYU. E-mail: awooten@lingotek.com . Follow him on Twitter at AdamWooten..

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